SOUTH OGDEN — Mohammed Al-Tigar doesn’t deny it — life in Northern Utah can be complicated for Muslims.

“It’s been challenging,” said the president and chair of the Islamic Center of Kuwait in Utah, a South Ogden-based religious center for the area’s small Muslim community. “I don’t want to say it hasn’t been tough.”

Moreover, he acknowledges that notwithstanding any commonalities with the broader community, Islam and other religions all have their points of departure. “There are, no doubt, differences in the religions,” he said.

That said, he’s more adamant on another point, that “just because we have differences doesn’t mean we can’t coexist.” And with that in mind, the Islamic center held an open house Saturday, inviting the public to meet with group members, tour the facility and eat Middle Eastern food.

“We want you to know we are your neighbor. We want you to know we are your friends,” said Mohammad Aleiwe of South Ogden, administrator at the Islamic Center.

Visitors came and went during the open house, eating food, visiting the prayer area and mingling with Islamic center members. Mary Khalaf, a Muslim active in local politics from Ogden, was there, and she saw the open house as an opportunity to demystify the religion and its adherents.

“We can be intimidating. People sometimes don’t know how to approach us. Awkward,” she said. The aim of the event, she said, is “to see the humanity of us, because we are people.”

Al-Tigar led a vigil last March in Ogden to honor the victims of the deadly attacks last March on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. At that event, he invited the public to the Islamic center in South Ogden, and Khalaf said representatives from the Ogden Diversity Commission later followed up, suggesting the group hold an open house.

Stewart Richards of Ogden attended, invited by a neighbor who’s originally from Syria.

“I was curious mainly,” he said. “I just wanted to understand more about the religion.”

Utah Rep. Kelly Miles, a Republican who represents the area, also attended, as did two members of the South Ogden City Council, Brent Strate and Adam Hensley.

“I’m here to support their efforts to be part of out community,” said Hensley. The Islamic center, at 5864 Harrison Blvd., is “tucked away. It’s a quiet place. It’s good to bring some awareness to it as well.”

The population of Muslims in Northern Utah, the region stretching north of Farmington, numbers around 2,500 to 3,000, Al-Tigar estimates. They’re scattered around the area, not focused in any one zone in particular, and around 75 to 100 attend prayer services on Friday, the main day of worship.

The Islamic Center opened Nov. 16 last year, replacing a home in Ogden that area Muslims had used as a gathering place and prayer center.

‘OF PEACE AND LOVE, PERIOD’

Aside from welcoming visitors, Al-Tigar said he welcomes queries, even seemingly uncomfortable queries. “We don’t mind at all tough questions because only by answering them could be bridge the gaps and understand each other,” he said.

Questions about political violence carried out by extremists identifying as Muslims are among the most common, according to Al-Tigar, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Syrian descent by way of Kuwait. He first came to Utah to attend Weber State University and now works as an engineer for a defense contractor.

Aleiwe lamented such violence, saying it comes from a small minority. “The teachings of the religion have nothing to do with what they’re doing. We don’t even consider them to be Muslim, to be honest,” he said.

He also emphasized his connection to Utah, his ties to the state. His kids were born here and he intends to die here.

“Our religion is a religion of peace,” he said. The main message, he continued, is one “of peace and love, period.”

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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