CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Oct. 4) - U.S. Rep. Cass Ballenger blames the breakup of his 50-year marriage partly on the stress of living near a leading American Muslim advocacy group that he and his wife worried was so close to the U.S. Capitol that "they could blow the place up."
The nine-term Republican lawmaker, in an interview with The Charlotte Observer published Saturday, called the Council on American-Islamic Relations - whose headquarters are across the street from his Capitol Hill home - a "fund-raising arm" for terrorist groups and said he reported CAIR to the FBI and CIA.
Ballenger, 76, told The Associated Press on Saturday that he had no problem with Muslims generally, but that he objected to what he believes are ties the group has with terrorists.
"The only difference I have is that building across the street. In my opinion, it should never have been leased" to the group, Ballenger said.
His wife, Donna, told The Associated Press the couple kept a close eye on CAIR since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and worried that the group's activities might jeopardize security on Capitol Hill.
"This gang across the street is questionable," she said Saturday.
The council, which looks out for Muslims' civil rights and sponsors interfaith gatherings, on Saturday urged other Republicans to repudiate what it called Ballenger's "bigoted" statements.
Ballenger's "bizarre comments demonstrate the sheer lunacy of his political and religious views," said Arsalan Iftikhar, the council's legal affairs director.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR, told the Observer that Ballenger's unsubstantiated remarks were bigoted.
"It's unworthy of an elected official at the national level," Hooper said. "You wonder what he's been doing in Congress if this is the kind of analysis he does: 'You're a Muslim, so you're guilty."'
Ballenger made the comments during a Wednesday phone interview with the Observer in which he discussed his legal separation from his wife, the newspaper said.
In addition to CAIR, he told the newspaper that another stress on the marriage was the 1995 decision by "holier-than-thou Republicans" in the House to ban gifts from lobbyists. The meals and theater tickets from lobbyists once meant "a social life for (congressional) wives," Ballenger said.
Ballenger's wife also said the move by "do-goody Republicans" to restrict the money spent on members of Congress and their spouses had helped turn Washington into a less desirable place to live. "Just a dinner now and then" would do no harm, she said.
Last December, Ballenger also drew criticism when he said then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a black Democrat from Georgia known for her abrasive style, had stirred in him "a little bit of a segregationist feeling."
He later apologized.
Ballenger said in the latest interview that after the 2001 terrorist attacks, his wife was anxious about all the activity at CAIR, including people unloading boxes late at night and women "wearing hoods," or headscarves, going in and out of the office building.
"That's 2 1/2 blocks from the Capitol," he said, "and they could blow it up."
Ballenger said he reported the activities to the FBI and CIA.
FBI agent John Iannarelli said all reports made to the FBI are kept confidential unless there is an arrest.
CAIR, founded in 1994, has denied suggestions by some conservatives that it has ties to Middle Eastern groups linked to terrorist acts. It took out a full-page ad in The New York Times condemning the Sept. 11 attacks and sponsored an interfaith "Day of National Unity" in Washington on the attack anniversaries.
"We meet with the FBI quite often," Hooper said. "Our chapters have town hall meetings with the FBI to discuss discrimination and hate crimes (against Muslims)."
Zahid Pajek, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Charlotte, said Saturday he couldn't understand the Ballengers' concerns about the group.
"That's kind of really strange, because those people are mostly citizens of the U.S," he said. "That's kind of strange logic."
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