Ken (Khader) Abuassab, the founder and director of the American Arab Civic Organization, said the alleged terrorist doesn’t represent the people of Paterson or Islam. Keldy Ortiz/NorthJersey.com
“It was like he killed all humanity,” the imam, Abdelkhalik Elnakib, says.
The spiritual leader of the Omar Mosque in Paterson, which has endured threats and an onslaught of negative attention following the terror attack in Manhattan on Tuesday, condemned terrorism and said he never saw the man accused of killing eight people with a rented truck.
“It was extremely shocking and saddening to hear that this was a Muslim man who did this and we feel sorry for those people who lost their lives,” the imam, Abdelkhalik Elnakib, said in an exclusive interview with The Record and NorthJersey.com. “They were innocent. They hadn’t committed any crime and didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
He added: “On behalf of the name of the mosque, the imam of the mosque, the board of the mosque and the people of the mosque, we condemn this act of violence against innocent people. They are part of us and we are part of them.”
The suspect, Sayfullo Saipov, moved to an apartment around the corner from the mosque about three months ago, according to neighbors and public records. Some neighbors said he prayed there, though many who worship at the mosque said they never saw him. The imam also said he never saw Saipov, a 29-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan, at the mosque on Getty Avenue, which many area Muslims have visited at one time or another.
“There are thousands of people who come to the mosque. It’s difficult to pinpoint that anybody has been there unless they approach me or speak to me,” Elnakib said.
During Friday prayers, the imam delivered a sermon decrying the terrorist attack and citing a verses from the Quran against the killing of innocent people.
“I explained that this person’s actions — basically it was like he killed all humanity and that it’s unacceptable,” he said.
It was a reference to verse that he has cited after other terror attacks, that killing an innocent person “would be as if he killed all mankind.” Another, which he also cited on Friday, says that that he who kills will meet “God’s wrath” and “hellfire.”
During his sermon, the imam also spoke about the United States as a country that welcomed them, provided peace, safety, work and education opportunities. He said it was a country that treated people fairly regardless of religion, race or ethnicity.
“We have have to thank God for the opportunity given to us. This Is a good land and God is gracious,” he said.
“What is the return of good nature except good nature?” he said. “People were hospitable and brought us here, and we should act in hospitality and kindness as well.”
The imam, who immigrated from Egypt in 1988, has presided over the mosque for 23 years. He delivers sermons in Arabic, with a person on hand who translates them into English for worshipers using a headset. Around 90 percent of mosque attendees are from the Middle East, including Jordan, Palestine, Morocco and Syria.
The remainder are from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, with a few recent arrivals from Macedonia. But the imam said he had never met anyone at the mosque from Uzbekistan.
The mosque has been in the spotlight before, following news reports in 2012 that it had been secretly monitored by the New York Police Department. It was part of a broad surveillance program after 9/11 intended to map and monitor places where Muslims prayed, lived, ate and shopped in New York, New Jersey and beyond.
There were no allegations of wrongdoing, and the surveillance never turned up any leads or led to any investigations. Elnakib said that if police officers wanted to come and listen, “they are welcome any time.” He also said he was not upset about the surveillance.
“They’re just doing their job,” he said. “They’re investigating all the mosques. They have to do this to make sure everyone is safe.”
The media-shy imam has previously declined interview requests, saying he preferred to focus on religious duty. He also doesn’t speak much English, and spoke to The Record through a translator on Friday.
He changed his mind about giving an interview to The Record, he said, due to the gravity of the situation. He hopes that speaking out will help dispel any negative perceptions of the mosque and South Paterson, which is home to many Muslims.
“The most important thing is that the media doesn’t associate Muslims with terrorism and Islam with terrorism,” Elnakib said.
In interviews, mosque attendees have said that the imam often speaks out against violence and terrorism.
“He forbids all this action,” said Mohamed Nanaa, who works nearby and attends morning prayers at the mosque. “He talks very clearly against any violence and any terrorism.”
Elnakib noted the contributions that Muslim Americans have made as doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers. South Paterson is also home to a thriving business district with ethnic groceries, restaurants and gift shops that attract visitors from around the region.
“We helped build this community,” Elnakib said. “Our strength is in our diversity.”