N.J. imam stabbed during prayer, attacker subdued by congregants

Security outside Omar Mosque

April 9, 2023; Paterson, NJ; Extra security could be seen outside Omar Mosque, Sunday afternoon, after an imam was stabbed there earlier in the day. Sunday, April 9, 2023 . Mandatory (Credit: Kevin R. Wexler-USA TODAY NETWORK)

An imam was stabbed while leading his congregation in prayer on Sunday at a mosque in Paterson, N.J. The assailant was quickly subdued by worshippers, according to local authorities.

Police responded to the attack inside Omar Mosque in south Paterson around 5:37 a.m. local time on Sunday. Upon arrival, they found that a 32-year-old man was already apprehended, Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes said in a press release.

The suspect, identified as Serif Zorba, has been arrested and charged with first-degree attempted murder and weapons charges. He is expected to appear in court on Monday afternoon, Valdes added.

Imam Sayed Elnakib, 65, was quickly transported to St. Joseph’s University Medical Center.

Mayor André Sayegh, who went to visit Elnakib at the hospital on Sunday afternoon, said the imam was in stable condition despite “suffering some serious wounds.”

At a press conference on Sunday, Sayegh said there will be a heightened police presence at mosques throughout the city to ensure people’s safety in the remaining days of Ramadan. “You should not be afraid to pray, you should feel safe to pray,” Sayegh added.

Over 200 people were at the mosque at the time of the attack, Abdul Hamdan, a spokesperson for the mosque, told CNN.

The Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office did not provide details about the possible motive for the assault and told NPR that the investigation is ongoing.

“While it is unclear what motivated the attacker, there is no justification for violence of any kind, especially in a sacred space,” Councilmember Al Abdel-aziz, who represents the area where the incident occurred, wrote on Facebook.

The attack comes weeks into Ramadan, a month of fasting and prayer that represents the most sacred time of the year in the Islamic tradition.

CAIR is calling for an investigation of another incident in Paterson

The incident also took place a day after the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called for a hate crime investigation into a separate incident at the Dr. Hani Awadallah public school in Paterson.

Dina Sayedahmed, a spokesperson for the chapter, told NPR that the group learned on Friday that the word “Allah” in Dr. Hani Awadallah’s name was defaced with an unknown dark substance. The word “Allah” refers to “God” in Arabic.

The group said it recorded 152 complaints related to anti-Muslim prejudices in 2022.

Paterson is home to one of the highest Muslim populations in the U.S. by percentage, with estimates of Muslims making up about 25,000 to 30,000 of the city’s more than 150,000 people.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal