An imam is in stable condition after being stabbed during a Sunday morning prayer service at a mosque in Paterson, New Jersey, according to local officials.
Imam Sayed Elnakib was stabbed during the first prayer of the day, around 5:30 a.m., at Omar Mosque in south Paterson while the congregation was kneeling for prayer, mosque spokesperson Abdul Hamdan told CNN.
The suspect, who was unknown to congregants prior to Sunday’s incident, was performing prayers and “lunged forward with a knife and stabbed Imam Sayed multiple times – at least twice,” Hamdan said.
After the incident, the suspect attempted to flee from the mosque but congregants “were able to bring him down and apprehend him and hold him” until police arrived and arrested him, he said.
There were more than 200 congregants in the mosque at the time of the stabbing, Hamdan said. The spokesperson said he strongly believes that this was an isolated incident and assured all congregants “that the mosque is safe and to practice their faith, it is open.”
Mayor Andre Sayegh said he visited Imam Sayed Elnakib in the hospital soon after the incident. The mayor said the imam is in stable condition at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center.
CNN has contacted the medical center and did not receive an immediate response.
Sayegh said Elnakib was “in better spirits than before” Sunday afternoon and is being treated for a punctured lung. The mayor said a suspect was detained, but their motive is not clear.
The stabbing occurred during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar. In 2023, it runs from March 22 to April 20.
In a news conference Sunday, Sayegh commended the efforts of worshipers who apprehended the attacker and announced that there would be increased police presence at Paterson mosques.
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“We appreciate the efforts of those here who were able to apprehend the assailant and we also want to reassure the family, the congregation at the mosque, that there will be extra police attention,” the mayor said.
“This is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar year and we want to make sure that the safety of those that are just coming to pray is a priority for us and that we take this situation very seriously,” he continued. “We want to let anyone who is coming to worship know that they can do this in peace without any fear of being attacked.”
The Paterson Police Department was taken over by the state attorney general’s office in late March, due to a “crisis of confidence” in the city’s law enforcement, the office said at the time. The attorney general’s office told CNN the stabbing is being investigated by the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office. CNN has reached out to the prosecutor’s office for further details.
Councilman Al Abdel-aziz, who represents the area where the attack happened, said in a Facebook update that he was “deeply saddened” by the stabbing.
“My heart goes out to everyone affected by this tragic event,” he said. “While it is unclear what motivated the attacker, there is no justification for violence of any kind, especially in a sacred space.”
“I am relieved to hear that Imam Sayed Elnakib is in stable condition, and wish him a full and speedy recovery,” the councilman added. “Please know that my thoughts and prayers are with him and his family during this difficult time. As a community, it is important that we come together to support one another and denounce all forms of hate and violence.”
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A day earlier, the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called for a hate crime investigation after a separate incident in Paterson. The chapter said a sign at the Dr. Hani Awadallah public school in Paterson was defaced.
In a statement Saturday, the chapter’s executive director. Selaedin Maksut, said, “While the circumstances surrounding the incident remain unknown, the smearing of the word ‘Allah’ in Dr. Awadallah’s name is apparently intentional, with the remainder of the sign left untouched, making an immediate hate crime investigation into this incident necessary.”
“In 2022, we’ve recorded the highest number of complaints of anti-Muslim prejudices, at 152,” Maksut said. “Over the years, our records have shown that complaints increase around and during Ramadan, in part because Muslims are more visible and take up more space – physically and metaphorically.”
During the month of Ramadan, worshipers eat and hydrate before sunrise and fast until sunset. Worshipers also engage in other forms of practice including increased prayer, giving more to charity, volunteering and participating in communal meals.
Paterson is a city with a population of more than 150,000, according to the US Census Bureau, about 15 miles north of Newark.
The city is home to one of the largest Muslim communities in the state of New Jersey and that New Jersey has more Muslims per capita than any other state in the nation, according to Maksut.
Later Sunday, Hamdan performed the second prayer of the day at Omar Mosque, he said, along with 300 to 400 other worshipers. Prayers will continue throughout Sunday and moving forward, the spokesperson added.
“We urge everyone to allow this incident to even get them closer to their religion, to God, to visit the congregation more often and not allow this to bring them away,” Hamdan said. “This is a time of unity and peace, and this incident should not in any way take that away from us. We feel safe here at the mosque.”