04/23/2013 04:52 EDT | Updated 06/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Chiheb Esseghaier Pushes Mosque, Cote-des-Neiges Socio-Cultural Centre, Into Media Spotlight


MONTREAL - There were some moments of friction Tuesday outside a tiny Montreal mosque where a man charged with terrorism used to occasionally pray.

Chiheb Esseghaier is facing several terrorism charges in an alleged plot the RCMP say was directed by al-Qaida.

With little known about Esseghaier, more than a half-dozen journalists headed to the west-end mosque Tuesday seeking more information about him.

Reporters questioned worshippers as they came and went from the afternoon prayer, a media presence that created concerns for several attendees.

"Please turn off the cameras, please don't make any trouble for me," said an exasperated man, who declined to give his name but described himself as a founder of the two-year-old Cote-des-Neiges Socio-Cultural Centre.

"(My worshippers) will not come... they'll be afraid of this situation."

Two people Tuesday confirmed having seen the accused terrorist pray at the glass-panelled storefront-type establishment, which is near the intersection of prominent streets in a working-class multicultural neighbourhood.

One said it had been a year since he'd seen Esseghaier, a biotechnology expert who was performing doctoral studies in nanosensors.

The media presence drew an angry response from another man, who said he owned the building.

During a lengthy exchange with reporters, the man demanded that media refrain from taking images of him or recording anything he told them because he did not want to be interviewed.

He also refused to give his name.

"Don't take notes and don't record. I have called my lawyer," said the man before he headed into the building.

"This man is still innocent, there are charges against him and please don't make a big drama out of it and implicate a lot of mosques.

"You are making a very big drama out of this thing that has not been proved yet."

A short time later, municipal police officers arrived at the prayer room, which is in one of Montreal's most culturally diverse neighbourhoods.

The officers entered during prayer and left after a few minutes without saying anything to the reporters and TV camera crews gathered outside.

Several prayer attendees said they were concerned with how their place of worship and the Muslim community was being portrayed by the media since Esseghaier's arrest Monday.

"It's peaceful," Anour Lahrach said of the centre, following the prayer.

"There's no terrorism in there... but unfortunately the media has truly deformed the image of our religion."

Another man described the prayer room as a place for Muslims who work on the road, like taxi drivers, to drop in during the day. He said it has no official membership and caters to people who are moderate and well integrated in Canada.

"It's a quiet mosque... there are no problems," said the man, who added that he is deeply affected by Islam's frequently negative portrayal by news outlets.

"The media sometimes exaggerates... Islam is a religion of peace."

Two men recalled seeing Esseghaier at the mosque in the past, but both insisted they knew very little about him.

"It's been a long time since I've seen him — about a year or longer," said one man, who left without giving his name, after the prayer.

"He's not really a big talker, he's quiet.

"I never had a problem with him."

The man, who, like Esseghaier, has a Tunisian background, said he knew the suspect was in the Montreal for his doctoral research.

He said he knew nothing about Esseghaier's personal views.

"I knew him as an average Muslim, but I don't know what happened afterwards," the man said of Esseghaier, who is not a Canadian citizen.

Another man, who remembered seeing Esseghaier at the prayer room a couple of times, said the 30-year-old was not a regular at the centre.

He only realized who Esseghaier was after he was shown a photo.

"It's been a long time since I've seen this man," he said, "but I have seen this man before."

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