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The leaders of three world religions will be visiting the United States this week 2008-04-15

Tuesday, 2008, April 15
Melissa S. Monroe Express-News Business Writer

Posted: Sat Apr 05, 2008 4:14 pm Post subject: USA VISIT 2008 NEWSPAPERS ONLY


Web Posted: 04/04/2008 08:43 PM CDT
Melissa S. Monroe

Express-News Business Writer

San Antonio will host a massive religious gathering just days after the Final Four crowds leave town.

The event, called the Golden Jubilee, will bring a gathering of 35,000 Ismaili Muslims and their spiritual leader Prince Karim Aga Khan to the Alamodome and the Convention Center starting Friday.

"His Highness" is considered a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, and his visits with large gatherings of his congregation are rare.

"He hasn't visited the congregation collectively in about 21 years. This is a major and religious occasion to meet the spiritual leader," said Dr. Mansoor N. Saleh of Georgia, who's a member of communications council for the U.S. Ismaili community.

Event coordinators first looked into having their event at Reliant Park in Houston, but the center was unavailable. So they came to San Antonio a few weeks ago looking for space. A lot of space.

"The city benefits from having the Alamodome readily available," said Michael Sawaya, the city's director of convention, sports and entertainment facilities. "The economic impact of this is going to be like an Alamo Bowl. We were only given several weeks to plan this when normally a group this size will plan for four years."

City officials say this is the largest three-day event San Antonio has seen since HemisFair in 1968. It's estimated the group could spend about $37 million while here.

Sawaya said even though visitors here for religious gatherings typically don't spend as much as business travelers, this group is affluent.

But they didn't need as much hotel space — they have a block of 3,000 rooms — because many Texas Ismailis will be staying with family and friends in San Antonio during the event.

The three-day event will include a visit on April 13 from the Aga Khan — the spiritual leader of the Ismailis, which is a Shiite branch of Islam.
Born in 1936 in Geneva, the Aga Khan spent his early childhood in Nairobi, Kenya, and graduated from Harvard in 1959.

(Bloomberg News file photo)
Prince Karim Aga Khan, shown in 2005, leads 12 million to 15 million Ismaili Muslims, with an estimated 1,500 to 1,700 in San Antonio.

The Aga Khan leads a community of 12 million to 15 million Ismaili Muslims living in some 25 countries, according to the official Web site of the Ismaili community.

During the Golden Jubilee, which began July 11, 2007, and will continue until July 11, 2008, the Aga Khan will visit numerous countries, including stops in the U.S.

The Aga Khan also is making visits in April to Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago. The San Antonio visit is considered a private event for Texas Ismailis.

Amin Makhani, an owner of an Asian grocery store in Northeast San Antonio, said he has cousins coming from Houston and Dallas just to attend the gathering.

"You can say he's like a pope. This is the best opportunity for our people to see him," said Makhani, who estimated there are about 1,500 to 1,700 Ismailis in San Antonio.

Makhani's family is so excited about the visit they have been celebrating for the last 15 days, he added.

Another person who's happy about the Aga Khan's arrival is Greg Kowalski, president and owner of The RK Group, a local catering company.

RK Group is taking on the mammoth task of serving more than 200,000 meals in 60 hours. This is one of the largest events the firm has had to handle on such short notice.

"This piece of business came about suddenly and to amass this much food and supplies to feed roughly 200,000 meals in a matter of 60 hours is really an incredible logistic opportunity," Kowalski said.

Local hotel officials said despite the short notice, the group is coming at a great time.

"It's a weekend piece of business, and it's short term. It's a nice group to have right after the Final Four," said Scott Lane, the Grand Hyatt director of sales and marketing, who said the event will use a couple of hundred rooms at the new luxury hotel.

While the ultimate event features Aga Khan, the closed festivities also include traditional dancing, youth activities, poetry and live devotional music.

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