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By LAUREN MARKOE
c. 2011 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali joined other prominent Muslim Americans on Tuesday (May 24) to plead for the release of two American hikers who have been imprisoned in Iran for nearly two years.

Ali, who attained heroic status among Muslims worldwide when he converted to Islam in 1975, sat speechless behind dark glasses during a Washington press conference on behalf of journalist Shane Bauer and environmentalist Josh Fattal.

Ali’s wife Lonnie said she spoke for her husband, 69, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and makes few public appearances.

The Iranians are good people and “love this man,” she said of her husband. “And it is based on that compassion — the love of Allah, the love of (the Prophet) Muhammad — that we ask for their release.”

Iranian security detained Fattal, Bauer and Sarah Shourd as they hiked along the border of Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran on July 31, 2009. The three, all of whom graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, were charged with espionage.

Shourd, who is engaged to Bauer, was released eight months ago on humanitarian grounds. Leaders representing seven Muslim American groups joined Shourd and Ali in calling on Iran’s religious leadership to show Fattal and Bauer the same mercy.

“As the American Muslim community, we appeal to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to release Shane and Josh on the basis of compassion and kindness, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who God sent as mercy to mankind,” said Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America.

Before they embarked on their hike, Fattal was visiting Shourd and Bauer, at their home in Damascus. Their families referred to the three as peace activists who were raised to appreciate the world’s diverse cultures and religions.

Their captors have allowed Bauer and Fattal, both 28, three phone calls during their imprisonment, the last of which was on Sunday. Their families expressed concern over the young men’s physical and mental health.

Shourd, who was raised Christian in Los Angeles, taught English to Iraqi refugees when she lived in Damascus. She, Bauer and Fattal had no political agenda on their hike, she said Tuesday, but were simply seeking out a trail that led to a waterfall.

Bauer and Fattal’s continued detention, she said, “has everything to do with the animosity between the United States and Iran and nothing to do with two innocent men who have always stood on the side of what’s right.”

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