AN imam is being sued for failing to return thousands of pounds to angry donors after plans for a new mosque in Brentwood fell through.
Miah Rahman allegedly promised to use the cash to build the Muslim temple because worshippers had to use a local community hall.
However, after the proposals were shelved two years later, they were left empty-handed, Central London County Court heard on Monday.
Formed as a result, the Brentwood and South East Cultural Association currently occupies a nondescript community hut owned by the Brentwood Army Cadets.
The members, mainly drawn from disaffected Muslims, still aspire to have their own place of worship.
Mr Rahman argues that the cash was intended as "gifts" for general work supporting Islam in and around the town, although a group of donors say they gave money on condition a mosque would be built.
Sidra Naeem, who was then working as a Sunday school teacher, told the hearing she helped collect more than £84,000 for the project.
A handful of people who filled out forms explicitly stating they were providing cash as loans totalling around £10,000 under Islamic law were later reimbursed – but others were left out of pocket.
"Most of these people who signed these forms didn't want the money back if the mosque materialised," she said, describing two big fundraising drives in 2005 and 2007.
"It's because the mosque didn't materialise that they wanted it back.
"It was a year later that we found out the mosque wasn't there. It was after that, when there was quite a big uproar in the community, that people started asking for their money back."
The court heard "probably hundreds" of others gave money in other ways without filling out the loan forms.
The court heard Mr Rahman began campaigning for a mosque in October 2005.
By the summer of 2007, a 1.4 acre site in Pilgrims Hatch had been found, but they were outbid at auction the following year.
Soon after, donors began demanding their money back.
Following a complaint by Dr Reshma Rasheed, a local GP who had given £1,500, police investigated both Mr Rahman and his colleague Mohammad Edoo on suspicion of fraud, but decided against a criminal prosecution.
Mrs Naeem said: "Once the mosque dissolved lots and lots of people started asking me for the money back.
"I'd obviously handed it to Mr Rahman."
Asked about the police inquiry, she said: 'I saw the bank accounts myself, and on the dates I had given my money a lot of the cash had not gone in.
"What had been deposited was mostly big cheques, and even then the money had been taken out from [a bank in] Chelmsford.
"That was when I realised the money hadn't been used for the purposes of the mosque."
A total of 13 claimants are jointly bringing the case against Mr Rahman and co-accused Mr Edoo, who was also involved in raising the funds.
All were then practising Muslims living in and around Brentwood and Billericay.
Giving evidence, Abdool Soobratty, who is suing to get £1,000 back, said: "I had all my trust in him as the Imam, but it didn't materialise.
"This was for a specific purpose."
Mr Rahman and Mr Edoo are accused of a breach of trust, which they both deny.
They say the funds were gifts, and did not meet strict criteria for a loan under Islamic law.
Under Qardhe Hasanah, a loan agreement must be made in writing, must set out the date of repayment, and should be witnessed by two people, the court heard.
The ongoing trial is expected to last four days.