Did Omar Rivera Pee in the Al-Iman Mosque in Astoria?


On Wednesday, we reported the story that Rachel Barenblat, a rabbinical student from Western Massachusetts, had raised $1,180 through her blog and social network to donate to the Al-Iman Mosque in Astoria, into which a man, Omar Rivera, had allegedly stormed and urinated on prayer rugs in late August. One of our commenters, the blogger behind Queens Crap, informed us this “never happened.” A call to the police confirmed that the man, in fact, did not pee inside the mosque, but outside.

We’ve called the mosque for comment, but they have yet to respond.

We contacted Barenblat to get her take, and she said that the people at the mosque who accepted her check had not said anything about that. She also said she thought the people claiming the incident didn’t happen or that the man was just drunk were incorrect.

If we look at early reports in the media, this was initially considered a possible hate crime. The Huffington Post called it “another brazen anti-Muslim incident,” and the New York Post ran this story:

Evening prayers were disrupted at the Iman Mosque on Steinway Street in Astoria when the unhinged man “came in with a beer bottle in his hands, clearly very intoxicated,” said Mustapha Sadouki, who was attending services.

“He fumbled over to our rugs where people were praying” and then committed the despicable desecration, Sadouki said,

The man, identified as Omar Rivera, had allegedly been drinking for five days, a police source said — and when found by worshipers, told them: “My sister’s dead.”

He then stumbled out onto the sidewalk, where he was grabbed by two members of the mosque who called 911 and held him until cops arrived, the source said.

Cops took him to a hospital and later charged him with criminal trespass.

“He stuck up his middle finger and cursed at everyone,” said Sadouki, 43.

“No one can pray now because the rugs are completely soiled. It was disgusting.”

Now, could this somehow be a case of a misunderstanding? Misreporting? A particular witness who wanted to color the events? A cover-up?

Later, various news organizations changed their story. Others, like MSNBC, did not. According to local news channel WPIX, “The mosque released a statement Thursday refuting claims Rivera shouted anti-Muslim slurs,” and that “Rivera was not charged with criminal trespass and was instead charged with pubic urination.” They also reported that witnesses said Rivera entered the mosque with a beer bottle in his hands.

According to the police, an incident in which a man peed outside the mosque did indeed happen — in fact, our contact would only repeat, “The man peed outside the mosque.”

But what does that mean about a donation to replace prayer rugs, which, we can only assume, were not outside? We asked Barenblat how she felt about that.

I agree that it’s problematic if it didn’t happen and yet the mosque took the donation! People donated their money specifically because they wanted to set this wrong right. But I suspect they also donated, in a more general sense, because they wanted to do something kind and generous for American Muslims in the face of so much anti-Muslim sentiment (between “burn a Quran day” and the cabbie who got knifed and the folks who are now protesting the building of a new mosque in Murfreesboro TN and so on.) So a case could be made that people’s donations are still worthwhile, because they were a chance to reach out to the Muslim community. That said, if it turns out that the incident didn’t happen, I will be saddened that the mosque didn’t tell me that when I reached out to them with the donation.

No one can say that Barenblat’s heart wasn’t in the right place. But more questions loom, like…Why was this originally reported as a hate crime if it was just a drunk guy peeing outside? Is there truth to the original story? Or is it a situation in which a context of anti-Muslim behavior (cabbie stabbings, Koran-burnings) made us rush to that judgment in this case as well? And — is that why the original story was so widespread, with corrections to it only localized?

We’ve contacted the Post for comment regarding the original story. We’ll also continue to attempt to contact the mosque and will update when we hear back.