NEWARK, NJ — The Islamic Society of Essex County, long based in downtown Newark, is making moves to relocate its headquarters, but not without attracting the ire of its congregants.
Worshippers at the 11-story ISEC building, also known as the Branford Masjid, are claiming the board of trustees deliberately kept the mosque closed to sell the building in a so-called backroom deal. Two plaintiffs filed suit against the board claiming trustees were in violation of the ISEC bylaws, which place the building into a trust.
But trustees say that the sale of the building, including the now-former prayer hall, is a result of the organization’s need for an upgraded facility that will allow it to provide expanded services to its community. The new headquarters, located two blocks from Branford across from Newark City Hall, is a nine-story building that will feature a prayer hall, cafeteria, doctors' offices, classrooms, daycare, legal aid, a food bank and a rehabilitation facility.
According to ISEC, the Branford Masjid, Newark’s former Chamber of Commerce building, has fallen into disrepair due to its age, racking up expenses and deterring tenants from renting vacant offices. Public documents show that the building was never placed in a trust.
“The Branford Place building was a ‘business’ with multiple tenants, and that was taking too much money for us to run. It was becoming difficult for us to carry out our mission to the community: education, religious services and community charity,” said Dr. Attia Sweillam, chairman of the ISEC board of trustees and an Islamic advisor to the "Organization of Islamic Capitals and Cities" NGO at the United Nations.
Trustees say that accumulating taxes, other debts and dwindling donations and attendance prompted the board to look into selling the masjid starting six years ago.
The Branford building, appraised at around $6 million, sold for about $7 million to the winning bidder, allowing ISEC to purchase the new Hill Street location for $7 million. The Superior Court of New Jersey struck down the two litigants’ attempt to enjoin the sale of the Branford building, finding that the board was within its rights to transfer the property.
“The winning bidder presented the best evaluated deal, and didn’t put us in the position of having to do risky seller financing,” said Omar Riad, board vice chair. “There has been a lot of deception about this deal spread throughout our community,” Riad added. “When we found our new headquarters building, we knew it would help us continue our community mission and worship services, when other offers put us at great risk for the benefit of the bidders.”
Trustees added that without the sale and relocation, ISEC would be able to continue serving the community. Newarkers rely on the organization for meals and other services every week.
“We were facing closure. There would be no more community services or prayer hall if we continued in Branford,” Sweillam said. “Instead, we can now continue both, in a much-upgraded, well-maintained building that welcomes the community,” he said. “It is unconscionable that some people are spreading lies, often anonymously, to try to block these community benefits for self-gain.”