Leaders of different faiths stood united Wednesday against hate and intolerance they said was manifested in an organized graffiti attack that in recent days targeted nearly a dozen places of worship in Waukegan and Gurnee.
"It hits you right in the gut when you see it," Bishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago said during a news conference at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Christian Church, 1400 N. O'Plaine Road. That church and the nearby Islamic Foundation North at 1751 S. O'Plaine Road were vandalized overnight Sunday into early Monday.
Authorities, including the entire Waukegan detective bureau, were working on what Mayor Wayne Motley described as a "devastating event" involving an obscene message accompanied by a smiley face in red spray paint near the entrances of the two places of worship among others.
"Hate crime is not tolerated in our community," Motley said.
Details of the other reports were not discussed, but were said to have involved a similar method and message at places of worship involving other faiths as well. Gurnee and Waukegan police in a joint statement Wednesday said nearly a dozen cases of defacement have been reported in both communities since Feb. 14, apparently targeting religious facilities.
"This is the first time we've seen a coordinated vandalism attack on communities of faith, not just Muslims, on this scale," Aymen Abdel Halim, communications director for the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said before one of the news conferences. Such activity in 2013 among the 60 mosques represented was "slim to none," and this was the first report of 2014, Halim said.
Police are asking for help in identifying a man seen on surveillance video during one attack, and who is believed to be driving or has access to a silver or light-colored SUV, possibly a Nissan Rogue or Nissan Murano. Anyone with information is asked to call Gurnee police at (847) 599-7000 or Waukegan police at (847) 782-2369. Callers can provide anonymous information to Lake County Crime Stoppers (847) 623-2222 and may qualify for a cash reward.
"We do have leads and clues and we will bring this to a quick conclusion, hopefully," Motley said.
Church and elected leaders gathered at St. Demetrios for a news conference and prayers, then took the short drive to the Islamic Foundation for the same purpose. While condemning the attacks, the overriding message was one of disappointment and a vow to support each other.
"The haters are giving us an opportunity to display and show love," said Stan Davis, of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. He said the number of such incidents has been decreasing, and he hoped this was an isolated incident rather than the start of something more.
St. Demetrios has an 85-year history in the community and has been at the O'Plaine Road location about five years. The Islamic Foundation will celebrate its 10th year on O'Plaine Road. Neither location seen activity of this type, officials said.
"We've been working together for a number of years," said Iman Matthew Ramadan, of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. "What this today will be doing is strengthening those bonds,"
Ramadan had called Demetrios with the news about the vandalism. At the Islamic Foundation, the graffiti was discovered about 6 a.m. when members arrived for dawn prayer.
"We will try our best to help him (the vandal) come out of the darkness," Shaikh Qari Ahmed Ali Syed, the local Iman, said after the news conference. "I would be more than happy to meet with that person (and say) `C'mon dude, what's wrong with you?' "
Cosmas Halekakis, the parish priest for the 300-family St. Demetrios, said there was a private event at the facility until about midnight. An office volunteer discovered the graffiti early Monday.
Efforts to remove it were unsuccessful and it was painted over before the start of a Greek language program for kids on Tuesday, he said.
"We were horrified, it made us very upset," Christine Palmer, a member of the church board and its treasurer, said before the speakers reached the podium. "We never had anything like this, even at the old church in Waukegan," Palmer said. "It's nothing you want to talk about or see."
John Phillips, who has been a parishioner for about 40 years, said there are individuals who don't respect God and other religions.
"It's a shame people don't have respect for people's property," he said.