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Arab-American leader’s grave desecrated at suburban cemetery

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Updated: September 19, 2012 6:05AM

For many years, Hassan M. Abdallah was the face of Arab Americans in Chicago.

The Palestine-born resident of Hickory Hills served in the Arab League, helped build the Bridgeview mosque, and worked as a government diplomat until his death at 73-years-old.

Abdallah was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in 1999, left to rest underneath a stone obelisk bearing his name beside about 500 other Muslim graves in the cemetery.

On Thursday, a Muslim man discovered someone had written “Raghaed Killer,” (sic) homosexual slurs, and gang signs on Abdallah’s tombstone, the sixth time the tombstone was hit since March 2011.

“The people who are behind this wouldn’t realize how important he is,” said Ray Hanania, who profiled Abdallah in his book ‘Arabs of Chicagoland.’ “To them, they don’t know anything about him. He was the symbol of American Arab activism in the 1960s and 1970s.”

Hanania called Abdallah a “community leader,” who helped raise the money for the construction of the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview. According to a news release from Birzeit University in Palestine, Abdallah was also a Jordanian consult general in Chicago. Birzeit University and University of Illinois at Chicago set up scholarships his name after his death.

Messages left for Abdallah’s widow were not returned.

While some Islamic groups have labeled the incident a hate crime, detectives have not yet come to the same conclusion, Evergreen Park police Lt. Peter Donovan said. Detectives are trying to figure out if the grave was targeted because of the family’s religious beliefs or because of a personal vendetta.

“It’s not clear if it’s just property damage or something more,” Donovan said, adding that the graffiti will be sandblasted off.

Rabya Khan, a spokeswoman for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the continued desecration of the grave troubled her.

“It’s extremely upsetting that this is a continued pattern,” she said. “I would like to see increased security measures taken by the cemetery.”

Given the history of vandalism, Jessica McDunn, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Dignity Memorial Network, which owns Evergreen Cemetery, said the company is “seriously considering the installation of motion-detector lights and cameras around the cemetery.”

Dignity owns more than 300 cemeteries in the United States and Canada, and has motion-detector lights and cameras at several “to deal with vandalism and thievery,” McDunn said.

Brass and bronze plates on tombstones have been stolen for scrap in recent years, she said. “It’s important to have different security measures because the cemetery is open at night. You can’t get a car in, but you can still walk in,” she said.

While it’s impossible to monitor the entire cemetery, cameras and lights would be “placed in strategic spots so we can deter (vandals) or at least catch them in the act,” McDunn said.

She said the cemetery’s parent company is “shocked and dismayed that anyone would disturb any grave. We consider this despicable. It is upsetting to a family who has buried their loved one. It is very offensive.”

The cemetery, at 3401 W. 87th St., is home to about 500 Muslim graves, according to a statement from the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.

The Southwest Side has been home to a large Muslim and Arab-American community for more than 30 years, said Ahlam Jbara, associate director for the council. “It is shocking to find such hatred, especially at a cemetery.”

The incident comes after a man fired a high-powered pellet gun at a Morton Grove mosque last week and someone allegedly threw an “acid bomb” at a Muslim school in Lombard on Sunday.

Sheikh Kifah Mustapha, an imam and associate director at the Mosque Foundation, said that mosques throughout Chicagoland have taken the step of hiring security guards to keep watch during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan due to the attacks.

“The Muslim community is a peace-loving community that wants to be part of the American fabric,” Mustapha said. “Nobody should be targeted because of their faith or culture.”

In a statement, Zaher Sahloul, chairman of the council, blamed “irresponsible and hateful” comments made by U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh for helping spark the recent wave of vandalism against the Muslim community.

“We ask our neighbors to show their rejection of hate and ask our law enforcement to be vigilant during the approaching Muslim holiday Eid,” Sahloul said, referring to the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

During a recent town hall meeting in Elk Grove Village, Walsh made remarks about radical Islam that offended some Muslim organizations.

Walsh said a “radical strain of Islam” had made its way into the Chicago suburbs.

“It’s here,” he said. “It’s in Elk Grove. It’s in Addison. It’s in Elgin. It’s here.”

Walsh defended his comments in a video released by his re-election campaign on Wednesday, saying, “Let me be clear: Bowing down to political correctness has and will get Americans killed.”

On Friday, a Walsh spokesman issued a statement on the grave saying: “Congressman Walsh is troubled by attacks on any people based on their religion. Whether it be the recent attacks on Muslims, or the roughly 1,000 anti-Semitic attacks that occur every year, these incidents must stop.

“From his work on the [House Committee on]Homeland Security, Walsh is very focused on the very real threat that a radical strain of Islam poses to our national security, and ignoring that threat for the sake of political correctness would be negligent,” the statement said.

“However, the vast majority of Muslims are just as peace-loving and as concerned with this threat as anyone else, and in no way should they be targeted simply because of their religion.”

At the cemetery Friday, Brian Zygadlo, of Garfield Ridge, was visiting the grave of a friend who died 30 years ago, and said of the marred grave: “It’s unfortunate. You shouldn’t have to see that.”

Dahoud Shalabi, who was born and raised in Orland Park and still lives there, has two grandfathers among several relatives buried at the cemetery. The vandalism saddens him because it happened on the eve of Eid.

“I’m disheartened by such an act of vandalism,” Shalabi said in a phone interview. “For any faith, any minority group to have this unfortunate type of bigotry is quite sad. It’s not just an attack on Muslims or Arab-Americans. It really is an attack on any faith-based or minority-based group. It’s our job as Americans to not let these incidents define us. We will overcome this.”

Contributing: Sun-Times Media Wire, Steve Metsch

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