Featured: Suspect who spray-painted swastika still at large

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By: William Westhoven

Daily Record

July 9, 2013

ROCKAWAY — Muslim leaders from borough and state organizations expressed gratitude to local law enforcement and the interfaith religious community during a press conference Tuesday at the Islamic Center of Morris County, where last month an unknown subject spray-painted what appeared to be a swastika on a glass door.

Borough police responded with an investigation that included the public release of surveillance camera photos and video, including a woman who at first was termed a person of interest but was identified and cleared of suspicion as a member of the congregation.

“As of this time no one has claimed responsibility, nor have the police been able to apprehend the culprits,” said Aref Assaf, the center’s director of outreach and media. “It is our hope that through this statement we can appeal to all citizens to cooperate with the authorities by reporting any and all leads that they may have. The ICMC views this cowardly act of vandalism with great concern. Attacks on places of worship are an affront not only to the congregation of the affected place, but send a message to the entire community. This message was filled with xenophobic and racist hatred and, above all, forces the followers of the faith to fear for their lives and properties.

While the investigation continues, borough Police Chief Douglas Scheer and Sgt. Conrad Pepperman attended the press conference, which took place on the first morning of the holy month of Ramadan. They were joined by Capt. Richard Wall and Sgt. Denise Thornton of the Morris County Sheriff’s Department.

Thornton said that Morris County Crimestoppers has designated the vandalism as a Crime of the Week, “meaning that the reward for any information leading to an arrest for this incident can be up to $1,000.”

“We want everyone to know that, in our opinion, this is an incident which is something that has never occurred in our community,” Scheer said. “And we want to make sure we control that, and it never ever happens again in this house of worship, or any other house of worship.”

Although everyone condemned the crime, the primary purpose of the press conference was for leaders of the center to thank law-enforcement officials for their efforts and accept prayers and good wishes from other religious organizations in the area.

“Today, of course, would have been a happier day if we were here just to celebrate the onset of fasting, but unfortunately we are here to share our concerns about the recent event that took place,” Assaf said. “But more so to celebrate the outpouring of support this community has blessed us with.”

“We came today in support of the members of the Islamic Center of Morris County not only as fellow people of faith, but simply as fellow citizens of the United States,” said the Rev. Mitchell Trigger, co-pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Rockaway. “Members of this Islamic center do not deserve special treatment because they are somehow different from us, but because they are us. Members of this community, like all of us, deserve to live and worship free from fear.”

“I am honored to take off my shoes in this holy place in order to be here with all our brothers and sisters,” said the Rev. Lyssette Perez, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Rockaways. “I’m here as a good Christian, as a good person of faith, and encouraging people to always pay attention to everybody’s differences, and celebrate them. We have something that unites us, which is the love that we have for God and the love that we have for each other.”

“We’re all here this morning to stand here in solidarity across religious and political lines to condemn the defacing of this [center],” said Khurrum Ali, civi rights director of the South Plainfield-based New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “A swastika, which generally and commonly is associated with hate and intolerance. As some people believe that this is an isolated incident, and that this poses no serious threat to the safety of the community, we feel any hate speech against any house of worship should be taken seriously because it affects all religious institutions.”

Assaf said the center is willing to forgive the perpetrator but wants that person to come forward or be caught.

“We want to know the full story as to why they did it,” he said. “And if there is a much larger story behind it. If it was one individual, one child having fun, we could deal with that.”

Until the perpetrator is brought to justice, the center will find comfort in the outpouring of solidarity they have received.

“What we heard from our officials, our friends and neighbors, is enough,” said Imam Adel Morsi, the center’s religious leader. “What I need to say is to thank you all for your efforts, for your support, for your help and I ask God to bless your life, your family and grant us everything is good and normal.”

“The incident was really a shock to me because, as everyone said, we live in a very peaceful community and our police department do a great job to keep this place safe and secure,” said the center’s president, Mostafa Abuzeed. “Everyone is welcome here. We have nothing to hide, nothing to fear. We fear only God.”

–William Westhoven


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