January 31, 2002

LOS ANGELES(AP)--Billboards designed to restore the image of Islam are going up along Southern California roads and freeways.

Beginning Friday, three billboards sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Southern California in Los Angeles and Orange Counties will show the faces of seven smiling Muslims from various sex, age and ethnic backgrounds. A message below the pictures reads: ``Even a smile is Charity - a message from your Muslim neighbor.''

The image of Islam and its followers was tarnished because of the actions of a few on Sept. 11, CAIR officials said.

`Our goal is to simply correct that image,'' said CAIR's Executive Director Hussam Ayloush.

The billboard campaign to promote religious tolerance is believed to be the first in the nation conducted by Muslims, he said. Ayloush said the group's initial, nonreligious message will be the first of several. Other messages will stress the importance of family and helping and respecting each other.

Jewish leaders and members of the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue, an interfaith group, applauded CAIR's campaign.

``Any effort to promote religious tolerance is a good one,'' said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

``It's a noble cause to help educate the American public about the true principles of Islam and to reach out and extend an invitation to dialogue,'' said Salam Al-Marayati, a member of the interfaith Muslim-Jewish Dialogue and the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

The billboards cost between $3,000 and $8,000 each and are funded by donations, many of them from CAIR members. Ayloush estimated that Southern California's chapter has around 8,000 members.

Muslim communities in Columbus, Ohio, and Dallas, Texas, have expressed interests in putting up similar billboards in their cities, Ayloush said.

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