Investigators say a fire that damaged a Houston mosque on Christmas began under suspicious circumstances, according to news reports.
Nobody was injured in the blaze, which occurred an hour after hundreds of worshipers had been inside Savoy Masjid for Friday prayers, CBS-affiliate KHOU reported.
Heavy smoke damaged surrounding buildings in the shopping center where the religious center is located. Because the fire occurred on a holiday, investigators said, the center was much less crowded than it normally is.
“With God’s grace, no one was hurt and nothing happened,” shopping-plaza owner Imran Momin told the Houston Chronicle. “It happened on Christmas, thank God. So God was looking out.”
But investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officials told KHOU that the fire had multiple points of origin, a revelation that suggests that arson may have been involved, and investigators are reviewing the building’s surveillance-camera footage.
If arson is confirmed, the incident would be the latest in a series of hate crimes and vandalism targeting Islamic centers of worship across the country.
• On Dec. 4 in North Palm Beach, Fla., the Islamic Center of Palm Beach had a dozen windows shattered. Joshua Killets, 27, of Juno Beach, Fla., faces a variety of charges in connection with the vandalism, including hate crime.
• On Dec. 11 in Coachella, Calif., Carl James Dial, 23, of Palm Desert, Calif., is accused of firebombing the Islamic Society of Coachella Valley mosque. He pleaded not guilty last week, and his next court appearance is Monday.
• On Dec. 12 in Hawthorne, Calif., southwest of Los Angeles, vandals defaced a pair of mosques — the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Baitus-Salaam Mosque and the Islamic Center of Hawthorne — the next day. Investigation into those crimes is ongoing.
• Also Dec. 12 in Macon, Ga., graffiti that included profanity and the word “terrorist” was spray-painted on the Islamic Center of Macon. No suspects have been arrested in that case.
The Southern Poverty Law Center blames the growing number of incidents on anti-Muslim rhetoric from politicians and white supremacist organizations. That rhetoric, they say, has increased dramatically after a husband and wife inspired by Islamic extremists killed 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., this month.
Members of the Savoy Masjid said they’re worried they may be the latest victims of a hate crime. Worshipers told the Chronicle that the three-year-old mosque was well-maintained. But, they noted, the worship center hadn’t received threatening phone calls or letters prior to the fire.
“It’s very hard to believe it was an accident,” Dramane Diallo, who opens the mosque to worshipers each morning, told the Chronicle.
“We don’t have anything here high-tech, cooking or kitchen, anything that can cause this kind of fire,” Saleen Memon told ABC-affiliate KTRK.
Mustafaa Carroll, the executive director of the Houston area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told KTRK that the Islamic community awaits more information.
“It makes it a little better if it’s an electrical fire, but we’re hoping it’s not arson,” Carroll said. “It is one of the holiest days of the year for a lot of people. We revere prophet Jesus. These things for us are paramount.”