Written by Christine Hauser
Seven Muslim worshippers gathered Saturday night for an overnight spiritual retreat at the Islamic Center mosque in Escondido, California, about a week after dozens of Muslims were massacred thousands of miles away in New Zealand.
Shortly before dawn prayers Sunday, someone noticed a fire outside the building, police said. One person called 911. Someone rushed to put out the flames using a fire extinguisher. An outside wall was scorched but not badly damaged, and no one was injured. Still, harm was done: There was anti-Muslim graffiti referring to the New Zealand attack.
On Tuesday, an Escondido Police Department official, Lt. Chris Lick, said in a phone interview that the fire had been set with an accelerant. But there were no suspects, he said, and investigators were examining video surveillance “from anywhere we could get it.”
The department, which announced in a statement Sunday that the fire was being investigated as arson and a hate crime, is working with the FBI, the San Diego Police Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on the case.
The suspected arson in Escondido, a city about 30 miles north of San Diego, targeted a place of worship for hundreds of Muslims in the area. It was one of a series of acts of vandalism and threats that have sprung up after the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, in which 50 people were killed. A 28-year-old Australian man has been charged in the killings.
In the United States, many Muslims remain on edge. On Monday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations encouraged the nation’s mosques and community leaders to have Department of Homeland Security advisers evaluate their readiness for mass shootings and other emergencies. CAIR also held online security meetings with hundreds of mosques and said it planned to reissue a pamphlet that would help them increase safety measures.
Several threats have been reported. A man was arrested in Phoenix on March 19 after police said he made a threatening gesture at a mosque.
In Howard County, Maryland, last week, a mosque received an online threat from someone saying “maybe you’ll be next” and threatening to “really show up” at a fundraising event over the weekend. Law enforcement officials stepped up patrols for Friday prayers on March 22 and for the fundraising event, CAIR said in a statement.
Islamic centers abroad have also been vandalized. Last week, there were attacks on five mosque buildings in Birmingham, one of Britain’s largest cities and home to one of its biggest Muslim communities.
Dustin Craun, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in San Diego, said Muslims were seeing the “same hatred” that motivated the attacks in New Zealand.
“It is disturbing enough that some sick individual would attempt to burn a house of worship to the ground, but referencing the slayings in New Zealand is beyond the pale,” he said in a statement after the Escondido mosque fire.
The Escondido mosque, also known as the Dar-ul-Arqam center, is one of two dozen mosques that serve about 120,000 Muslims in the San Diego County area, Craun said in a phone interview Tuesday. He said the leaders of the mosque, which was converted from a former church and holds about 100 people, were away at the time.
Investigators have not released details about the message left at the site beyond its reference to the New Zealand attack. But Craun said that by Sunday night, after the fire, writing that appeared to have been scrawled on the building was painted over, as mosque members and local residents gathered for a vigil.
“There was a beautiful gathering,” he said. “A lot of people from the neighborhood were saying how sorry they were.”