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US to seize properties allegedly controlled by Iran

US prosecutors have started legal proceedings to seize four mosques across America and a skyscraper in New York owned by a Muslim non-profit organization that is believed to have links with the Iranian government.

In a civil complaint filed on Thursday against the New-York based Alavi Foundation, federal prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of more than $500 million in assets.

The Muslim charity, formed in the 1970s, owns a majority of 650 Fifth Avenue, also known as the Piaget building, a 35-story office tower.

Prosecutors claim that foundation, through the Assa company, illegally funneled millions of dollars in rental income back to the state-owned Bank Melli in Iran. It’s believed the money was used to help the Islamic Republic with its controversial uranium enrichment program.

“The Alavi Foundation has effectively been a front for the government of Iran,” US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. “For two decades, the Alavi Foundation’s affairs have been directed by various Iranian officials, including Iranian ambassadors at the United Nations, in violation of a series of US laws.

According to Alavi’s official website, “the Foundation receives most of the money it gives to charitable programs from the rental income of an office building in Manhattan.”

“The Foundation's contributions are limited to not-for-profit public charities that are tax exempt under IRS law,” it says.

Alavi’s other assets include properties in New York, California, Texas, Virginia and Maryland.

Reportedly, the mosques and the skyscraper will remain open while the case is heard.

Experts say it’s quite unusual for the US officials to try to seize a place of warship since it calls into question the First Amendment to the US Constitution that protects religious freedom.

In addition, if the mosques – all four of them Shia – are seized, officials risk angering American Muslims and the already strained relations between the US and Iran would get much tenser.

The move comes just a week after a shooting at Fort Hood in Texas, when Major Nadil Malik Hasan, an American Muslim, killed 13 and wounded 30 people. The incident sparked heated debate in the media and public, with many accusing radical Muslims of intolerance.

According to the Alavi website, its mission “is to promote charitable and philanthropic causes through educational, religious and cultural programs.

“The Foundation does this by making contributions to not-for-profit organizations within the United States that support interfaith harmony and promote Islamic culture and Persian language, literature and civilization,” the website reads.