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Minnesota officials tell Muslims: We're here to protect you

MINNEAPOLIS -- Federal, state and local law enforcement officials in Minnesota met with more than three dozen local Muslims to let them know that authorities are here to protect them, and to urge community members to report incidents of hate crimes.

Thursday's meeting was held in response to this week's deadly attacks in Brussels. Several community members told authorities that after high-profile events like that, they feel scared.

U.S. Attorney Andy Luger told the group that law enforcement's job is to keep everyone safe, including Muslims.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Rick Thornton said the community needs to know that Minnesota authorities will aggressively deal with acts of violence targeting Muslims.

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"The atmosphere in America today is very fearful to me," participant Aman Obsiye said. Others thanked authorities for reaching out.

Gov. Mark Dayton spoke at Muslim Day at the Capitol on Wednesday and ordered flags to be flown at half-staff until Saturday, according to CBS Minnesota.

He was joined by the chairman of Minnesotan's Republican Party, Keith Downey, who denounced comments by Donald Trump and other presidential candidates who want a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.

Downey told CBS Minnesota that violates religious freedom.

"It's important for our presidential candidates to explain their approach. But no proposal should violate religious freedoms," Downey said. "It is important to oppose Donald Trump's -- or any other proposals- to combat terrorism in a way that would threaten freedom of religion, including banning Muslims outright from entering our country, or tracking Muslims and shutting down mosques without cause."

Downey also called on Minnesota Muslims to engage in more public conversations about terrorism and the role of Islam in America.

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A federally funded effort in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis to combat extremist recruitment has been slow to start since it was announced a year and a half ago.

Few local programs have been directly created by the "Countering Violent Extremism" pilot initiative, with officials in those cities just starting to distribute more than $500,000 in Department of Justice grant money to jumpstart new local efforts.

Minneapolis appears to be further along, but Boston and Los Angeles are months away from distributing their share of the money -- if at all.

"It's a little frustrating," said Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Michael Downing, whose department had been looking forward to federal support to enhance longstanding efforts that include outreach to help prevent radicalization. "We haven't seen a dime. We're clearly at the point where we want to put our money where our mouth is."

Recent attacks -- including in Paris in November, San Bernardino, California, in December and Brussels on Tuesday -- make the local programs all the more critical, suggests Robert Trestan, who has been involved with the Boston pilot as regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism.

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"It's been disappointingly slow, but we have to give it a chance before it's too late," he said.

Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said the agency is generally "encouraged" by what it sees from the pilot efforts, including "community-driven efforts to address youth prevention and intervention, mental and behavioral health, and radicalization in prisons, among other areas."

He would not provide specifics or comment on the whether the department had expected local programs to be running by now.

But he noted the funds -- $216,000 each to Boston and Minneapolis and $100,000 to Los Angeles -- were obligated in September 2015 and are good through this coming September, with limited extensions possible beyond then.

The pilot effort in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis - with wider rollout possible based on its success -- was announced in September 2014 and spotlighted during a three-day summit on global extremism convened the following February by President Barack Obama.

But observers say it has been underfunded and hobbled by a vague mission that has sown confusion and fueled strong opposition from civil rights and community groups that fear the programs will amount to government spying on law-abiding Muslims.

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