By Holly Toal
Members of the World Sufi Foundation Mosque have experienced harassment in the past, but nothing like what happened earlier this week. The disruption resulted in the arrest of five teens — one of whom is facing criminal charges for allegedly firing a weapon.
At about 11 p.m. Monday at the mosque on Fuller Road in Carlton, about 50 parishioners who were participating in an evening Ramadan service were interrupted by a group of teens in two vehicles, beeping car horns, squealing tires and yelling obscenities, according to Bilal Huzair, a Carlton resident who is also a board member and spokesman for the mosque.
“The comments yelled were quite vulgar,” he said.
After going outside to confront the suspects, parishioner David Bell was clipped by one of the vehicles, but not seriously injured.
Members of the mosque followed the cars into the parking lot of a nearby boat launch and blocked the entrance to the lot while they waited for police to arrive.
“One teen immediately got out of his vehicle and apologized and tried to shake my hand,” said Huzair. The driver of another car started driving erratically and ended up hitting Bell again, Huzair said.
Bell was taken to a nearby hospital with a lacerated tongue, a cut lip, loose teeth and bruises on his hip, according to Huzair.
The sheriff’s office has charged five people — all from Holley — with disrupting a religious service, a misdemeanor: Tim Weader, 17; Dylan Phillips, 18; Jeff Donahue, 18; Anthony Ogden, 18; and Mark Vendetti, 17.
Vendetti has also been charged with second-degree criminal possession of a weapon for allegedly firing a weapon in the area of the mosque three days earlier, with what is believed to be the same group of individuals in tow.
The teens are scheduled to appear 6 p.m. Monday in Carlton Town Court.
Vendetti was previously arraigned on the weapons charge and is currently in Orleans County Jail in lieu of $10,000 bail.
Huzair said he feels invaded, violated and targeted.
“Ignorance is just not an excuse to open fire,” he said. “Respect should be for all members of society.”
He said that while initial responses from the local law enforcement to address harassment at the mosque has not been to his satisfaction, he is pleased that the county sheriff’s office and the judicial system are
holding the recent incidents in high regard.
“I truly believe the police are taking this very seriously,” he explained.
Huzair said that he considers the recent incident to be more than just a prank.
“I believe it was a hate crime because they knew it was a mosque,” he said. “They recognize the parishioners as Muslims by they way they dress ... and they targeted them.”
Orleans County Sheriff Scott Hess said the incidents at the mosque are likely “teenage kids playing a prank” who don’t understand the magnitude of their actions. Asked whether or not the incident will be pursued as a hate crime, Hess said, “We’re looking into that possibility.”
Huzair, who is originally from Sri Lanka, said the teens need to be held responsible for their actions.
“We want it to be a just charge — the appropriate charge for the appropriate crime,” he said. “If it’s a hate crime, so be it; they need to be charged with a hate crime.”
Neither the sheriff’s office nor Huzair can say if the harassment is related to the ongoing controversy over the planned Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York City.
The World Sufi Foundation Mosque opened in 1974 and has about 100 parishioners. It was originally an old farmhouse and was chosen to be converted into a mosque because of its location and the serenity that surrounds it. Huzair said the mosque has seen acts of religious intolerance in the past, but this one escalated the intolerance.
“We’re grateful for the community response,” he said. Huzair explained that for the most part, town and county residents have been supportive of the mosque. “The immediate neighbors are loving, caring people,” he said.
Huzair added, “This surely brings awareness to the fact that this is not going to be tolerated. ... Let peaceful people stay peaceful.”