KISSIMMEE — Inside a church bearing a sign that reads “People of All Nations & Races Welcome Here,” Pastor Lee Wasson described what he and growing ranks of supporters say is a lesson in intolerance.
Wasson said his Kissimmee Christian Academy was cast out of its old home in favor of the Islamic nonprofit Universal Heritage Foundation. The reason: religious discrimination on the part of his Muslim landlord, the minister and school director says.
Property owner Super Stop Petroleum and the nonprofit say the story is not so simple. They adamantly deny Wasson’s accusation, saying the reason for the school’s eviction is that it owes rent and other money. Rab Masroor, a project manager, called the allegations “absurd.”
As Wasson, a growing number of Kissimmee church leaders and a conservative Web pundit stand up to what they perceive as radical Islam, they take what experts say is a black-and-white stand on murky subject.
Even authorities have trouble separating real threats from alarmist claims, said Art Teitelbaum, Southern-area director for the Anti-Defamation League.
“In a microcosmic way, this is a story on how America is responding to the perceived and actual threat of Islamic radicalism,” Teitelbaum said.
They’re having a tough time. Americans know the burning crosses of white supremacy and the swastikas of anti-Semitism. But what does Islamic radicalism look like? Few really know, he said.
The FBI offers little guidance, referring callers to a U.S. Department of the Treasury list of charities with established ties to terrorism.
Some of Wasson’s supporters admit they, too, knew little about Islam before Muslim-owned Super Stop Petroleum of Margate filed suit for eviction against Kissimmee Christian Academy in September 2003.
Wasson, the school’s director, says he paid all the rent he owed and more through an $8,000 security deposit and another $10,000 he deposited in an escrow account during the eviction process. Super Stop says the school really owes $41,500. Academy enrollment dwindled from 160 to 60 after the landlord cut off power and water during the eviction dispute. The issue is still before the courts.
After the filing, Wasson learned that Zulfiqar Ali Shah, founder of the Universal Heritage Foundation, hoped to buy the property. About the same time, the nonprofit, which said it promotes interfaith understanding, stirred controversy by inviting to a Kissimmee conference Muslim leaders described by critics as radicals who hate Jews and Christians.
The pastor concluded that his school is a victim of discrimination.
“How can this group be tolerant if they invite these people to speak and don’t distance themselves from them?” Wasson asked. “What happened to us is a natural outcome of what these people believe.”
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