Imam Islam Hassan of Colchester, the first full-time leader of the Islamic Society of Vermont at Fort Ethan Allen, is set to leave later this week for a new job in Ohio. The imam helped lead the mosque’s expansion. (File photo by Michaela Halnon)

Imam Islam Hassan, the first full-time leader of the Islamic Society of Vermont in Colchester, is stepping down from his post later this week for a new job in Ohio.

“The environment here was very lovely. Everyone was sad that I’m leaving, but that’s something good,” Hassan said inside the mosque Monday, bouncing his 5-month-old daughter on his knee. “[When] you leave with this kind of feeling around you, that’s better than when you leave because of a problem.”

Hassan, a Colchester resident originally from Egypt, first came to the ISVT from Minnesota in 2010 as a volunteer, one of many that cycled through to help lead services temporarily.

At that time, the society owned just a third of its current Fort Ethan Allen space, first purchased in the late ’90s. Before then, Hassan said many members gathered in small groups to pray in private homes or at area churches.

Mosque leadership extended a paid offer to Hassan in 2011, and in 2014, he launched a capital campaign that successfully raised the funds needed to purchase the remaining two-thirds of the building. The mosque is one of only two in the state.

Hassan said the center’s layout is morphing to better accommodate the membership. Eventually, the prayer space will be moved exclusively to the second floor, allowing the ground floor to be used as a community meeting space.

About 250 Muslims pray at least weekly at ISVT, but on Sunday, Hassan led more than 1,000 Muslims in an outdoor prayer during Eid al-Fitr, a celebration of breaking the fast held at the conclusion of Ramadan.

It was the imam who orchestrated the festival’s move outside last year, hoping the peaceful public display might demystify the religious rituals for those unfamiliar with Islam.

“Some people have the idea that Muslims are isolating themselves, they pray behind closed doors, no one is welcome in the mosque,” Hassan said. “Of course, that’s totally wrong.”

Hassan said the community has fostered strong relationships with Colchester, Essex and Burlington police departments. He’s forged connections with local religious leaders, too, and said many told him they had no idea non-Muslims could sit in on services.

“We just want to tell the people that we are a part of your community,” the imam said. “Everyone is welcome to join us.”

That camaraderie proved especially important after the November presidential election. While most in the community were supportive, Hassan said the mosque received a hateful letter.

When he showed it to his clergy group, more than 200 non-Muslims attended the next service in a show of solidarity. So many came, in fact, Hassan said regular worshippers couldn’t find a space to park.

Even today, it’s not unusual for Hassan to find a fruit basket or bouquet of flowers left on the mosque doorstep when he leaves for the evening.

“It was beautiful the way everyone showed support,” Hassan said. “[We] turned to being thankful with what happened, in terms of the result.”

Still, the imam said many other American mosques have not seen the same kindness. His colleagues have shared photos of vandalized walls and surveillance video of a burglar shredding copies of the Quran, the Islamic religious text.

That’s why Hassan said welcoming visitors and educating folks about the small-but-growing Muslim population is so important. Last summer, he spoke before the Essex Rotary Club, answering questions that ranged from playful to challenging.

He hopes to apply the same principles as an imam in Ohio. There, his 7-year-old daughter can also attend a private Islamic school. Though Hassan currently helps teach a weekly course for youth members, full-time academic studies are not an option currently available for Muslim youth in Vermont.

In the meantime, the Hassan said mosque leadership would continue to interview candidates for his replacement. With a much larger operation than ever before, it quickly became clear another full-time imam would need to take the reigns.   

“We don’t want to have a state that has racial discrimination or any religious based discrimination,” Hassan said. “We want to have a state [where] people live together in harmony. That will push the state forward.”