In the predawn darkness, Mohamed Azeem Khan unlocked the front doors of the mosque in Jamaica, Queens, to prepare for the morning prayer. For Mr. Khan, the imam of Masjid Omar Ben Abdel-Aziz for 18 years, opening the mosque every morning has become as routine as the rising sun.
But on this particular day, Feb. 1, Mr. Khan realized that something was amiss as soon as he stepped inside the beige, boxy two-story building on 161st Street near Hillside Avenue. His office door was ajar and the light was on. The door to the boiler room was also open, as was the back exit.
Inside his office, Mr. Khan saw that a safe containing the money used to pay for Saturday classes for children was gone, along with the petty cash that had been locked in a desk drawer. Upstairs, near the prayer hall, the zakat, money donated by Muslims to charity, was missing from two steel boxes.
In total, about $5,900 was taken. The bulk of the money was from the children’s fund.
“It was very, very bad, unscrupulous,” said Mr. Khan, who has piercing eyes, a bushy white beard and a mark in the middle of his forehead, earned by having touched his head to the ground toward Mecca countless times.
Mr. Khan’s mosque was not the only recent target of crime; within the past two months a cluster of mosques in southeastern Queens have been burglarized. In Jamaica and Richmond Hill, and even in East New York, across the border in Brooklyn, local Muslim leaders say that at least eight mosques have been burglarized since the beginning of the year, one of them twice. Because there are usually no signs of break-ins, the imams believe that the intruders hid in the buildings until after closing, then absconded with the money.
“It’s a sign of the times; people are desperate,” Aiyub Abdul-Baqi, an imam, said two weeks ago at the Jamaica office of an advocacy group, the Islamic Circle of North America, where he, Mr. Khan and other imams had gathered to discuss the problem.
Charles Aziz Bilal, one of the imams at the meeting, said that his mosque, Masjid Al-Hamdu Lillah, on Sutphin Boulevard in Jamaica, was broken into on Feb. 14. There, too, cash for the zakat was stolen from the donation boxes.
The Muslim leaders said they feared that even more mosques might have been burglarized, but that for various reasons their imams did not report the crimes to the police.
Among the imams there is a general belief that the burglaries are connected; the thieves seem to know the mosque environment, where the money is and where to hide. Mr. Khan said that now he is “meticulous” about checking every corner of his mosque before locking up at night.
Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the Police Department, said that there had been seven reports of burglaries of mosques, and that the police were investigating them, but there was no evidence that the crimes were linked.