An official from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said on Saturday that a fire at a Houston mosque is highly suspicious and may have been set on purpose. The fire was reported Friday afternoon at the Islamic Society of Greater Houston. It caused a great deal of damage to the building, however, nobody was injured. Heavy flames inside the center, located in a shopping mall in southwest Houston, led firefighters to move cautiously throughout the structure, which was damaged by the blaze.
Prayer on Friday night was held at a different venue and will continue to be held in alternative locations until the mosque is completely repaired. The ATF, the Houston Police Department, and the Houston Fire Department’s Arson Bureau are currently gathering evidence. Investigators said they are looking through surveillance video to see if cameras captured a potential suspect.
Since the November 13 attacks in Paris, CAIR has documented dozens of anti-Muslim incidents, including shots fired at the Meriden mosque in Connecticut, vandalism at an Islamic center in Pflugerville, Texas, where the door was smeared in excrement, and graffiti at an Islamic center in Omaha, Neb. The L.A. Times reported that Dial pleaded not guilty to each of the charges against him last week.
“Everything happened so quickly, in such a short time,” Shamim Qadri, a longtime worshiper at this mosque. He and his daughter had just completed afternoon prayers on Friday when the flames broke out. “It is very sad. We don’t really talk about that whether somebody did it or what, but we think it’s an accident,” said Fauzia Qadri. However, according to investigators, it appears to have been no accident. Arson investigators spent most of the day Saturday at the mosque, collecting evidence and interviewing business owners.
“It’s a place of worship. It’s Christmas day,” said MJ Khan of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston. “There were Friday prayers and everyone was here doing their prayers and then this happened.” The society warned parishioners not to spread rumors about how the fire started while vowing that they’ll help rebuild this mosque as quickly as possible.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations urged authorities to probe possible foul play. “Because of the recent spike in hate incidents targeting mosques nationwide, we urge law enforcement authorities to investigate a possible bias motive for this fire,” the executive director of the group’s Houston chapter, Mustafaa Carroll, said in a statement.
Earlier this month, authorities investigated a suspected case of arson at a mosque in Palm Springs, Calif. On Dec. 2, a Muslim couple killed 14 people and injured 22 others in an assault in the California city of San Bernardino that is being investigated by the FBI as a terror attack. Dramane Diallo, who is responsible for opening the worship center for prayer every morning, told the Houston Chronicle that the center has no kitchen or equipment that would easily cause an electrical fire. “It’s very hard to believe it was an accident,” Diallo said.