MIDTOWN — A group of women dressed in traditional Islamic garb have been standing outside a Midtown mosque during afternoon prayers, hoping to cash in on the goodwill of the pious worshippers who gather there, according to the mosque's frustrated imam.
Imam Nagi Khaled, who has been the head of the Masjid Ar-Rahman on West 29th Street since it opened nine years ago, said more and more panhandlers have arrived in front of his mosque with each passing year.
But he said he's warning those who come to pray at the mosque to think twice about giving, because he can't determine whether any of the women actually need the charity or represent a legitimate charity group. And, when confronted, one of the women couldn't recite a single Islamic prayer, according to a worshipper.
"They know in our religion that we give, they see huge numbers on Friday, and so they come back," Khaled said. "I'm walking a thin line, because our religion encourages people to give. I try to be diplomatic, I tell people to be careful, not to be deceived by what you see up front."
But Khaled said he has few options to deal with the women, who can't be charged with any crime unless they falsely claim to be representing a particular organization by name.
Mohammad Mahmood, an accountant who worships at the mosque, said he fears the panhandlers are "professionals."
"Muslims are so open, [the panhandlers] see avenues to operate here," said Mahmood, 50. "They gain sympathy. Some people confront them, and they can't recite any Muslim prayer."
On a recent Friday, close to a dozen women — some standing on crutches — gathered outside the mosque holding out paper and plastic bags and asking for money.
Most said they needed the cash to eat, while others claimed the donations would go toward an unspecified Islamic charity. When pressed for details by a reporter, the women quickly scattered, as some yelled streams of epithets and one swung crutches at a reporter.
Worshipper Abid Kamran, 32, a project manager at a nearby bank, expressed frustration as he stepped past three of the women clustered near the mosque's entrance last Friday.
"People that come out of prayers, they're very soft," he said. "[The panhandlers] try to make people feel bad. It's not right."
Still, many of the worshippers on a recent Friday — dozens, if not hundreds — slipped a bill or two to the women they passed while leaving the mosque. When asked whether they felt suspicious or deceived, they shrugged.
"We as Muslims have to give," banker Hamad Haidei, 35, said, tapping his chest near his heart. "People who give all give in good faith."