Converts to Islam face many obstacles

By Leonard Martinez
El Paso Times
March 5, 2004

Becoming a Muslim is not always easy.

Eastsider Lucy Velazquez recalls how her family was fractured when she and other relatives converted to Islam years ago. “The first person in my family who converted to Islam was one of my brothers,” Velazquez said. “Everybody in my family was Catholic.”

Velazquez’s son, Mario “Omar” Hernandez, 32, said problems arose when theconversions happened. “There were lots of fights, a lot of arguments,” Hernandez said. “One of my uncles was not happy when he found out some of us converted. He was overseas and he said, When I come back, we’re going to straighten this out.”

Drinking is not acceptable in Islam, so one of Hernandez’s uncles, who became a Muslim, poured beer into the candleholders. “A brawl broke out when my other uncle showed up,” Hernandez said.”They threw punches. After some time, it worked out.”

Islam, based on the teachings of Mohammed and embodying a belief in one god, is one of the fastest-growing religions in the nation and around the world, said Yusef Shere, president of the Islamic Center of El Paso.

“There are an estimated 3,000 Muslims in the El Paso area and around 7 million in the United States and some 1.2 billion worldwide,” Shere said.

The Dallas Morning News reported in November that about 25,000 people convert annually to Islam in the United States. In El Paso, about 11 percent of the Muslims are Hispanic, said Yaser Issa, iman at the Islamic Center of El Paso.

Keeping his Hispanic heritage was important to Hernandez. “When I became a Muslim, I took the name Omar because it is also a Hispanic name,” Hernandez said. “You don’t want to lose your Hispanic heritage because you become a Muslim.”

Hilda Ortiz, 23, said she started learning about Islam when she met a Muslim student at UTEP. She is still reading and learning about Islam day by day, but has not converted.

“When I attended the mosque a while ago, a group of ladies explained the converting’ facts,” Ortiz said. “First, they said if I ever decide to ‘convert,’ it would actually be a reversion. They explained that we were all born Muslim, but in different situations. It is up to us to find the truth and right path to God. They were confident that I would find my way.”

About the center
* What: The Islamic Center of El Paso.
* Where: 1600 Kansas.
* Information: 545-5088.

El Paso Times link