JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Investigators are not saying that an explosion and fire set off Monday night at a mosque is a hate crime, but they are calling it “targeted.”
The Islamic Center of Northeast Florida on the Southside is under tighter security today as a task force with members of the FBI and local police conduct interviews and collect evidence.
“Obviously, a combustible substance that had no business being there,” said Jacksonville Fire Rescue spokesperson Tom Francis, describing what was found.
Worshipers at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida heard a loud noise outside the mosque shortly before evening prayers Monday night.
“There was a blast outside and a couple of gentlemen got up, they opened the back door and there was fire,” said Ashraf Shaikh of the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida. “I think we need to be more tolerant and understanding of each other.”
Witnesses went outside and found a type of incendiary device which had caught fire. The fire was put out with a fire extinguisher and no one was hurt.
“Several of the members ran outside and observed fire along the back wall of the building at which time one of them grabbed the fire extinguisher and extinguished the fire,” said Lt. Robert Stephens, of the state Fire Marshal's Office. “In speaking with the leadership of the congregation…obviously they're concerned and rightfully so.”
The damage was estimated today between $500 and $600.
So far, police said they have some promising leads, but would not elaborate.
Investigators said this afternoon that they expect their biggest break in the case to come from mosque surveillance cameras and other cameras at surrounding businesses.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said the fire marshal, ATF and FBI representatives have responded to the incident.
“A possible bias-motivated attack on a house of worship should be of great concern to Americans of all faiths, and particularly to our nation's religions and political leaders,” said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad. “Those who shape public opinion must begin to speak out against the rising level of anti-Muslim sentiment in our society.”
Florida Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp also condemned the attack. “No one in this country should ever be concerned for their safety when they practice their chosen faith,” he said in a statement. “The free exercise of religion is one of our most cherished rights as citizens of this great nation. Ironically those targeted were exercising that right…”
CAIR points to several recent incidents that have stirred emotions against Muslims.
Two weeks ago, Jacksonville City Council approved the appointment of UNF professor Parvez Ahmed to the Human Rights Commission and today was his first meeting.
Police said it is possible the fire was related to Ahmed's first day serving on the commission.
CAIR also said a man in his 40s entered the Islamic Center on April 4, and shouted, “Stop this blaspheming!” The man said he'd be back as people chased him away.
The possibility of a hate crime raises concerns, said Yolanda Simmons, assistant pastor at New Covenant Ministries across the street from the Islamic center.
“If it were a church, if it were a school, if it were a preschool – it's people. So hearing that, that someone was targeted because of their beliefs, that's frightening,” she said.
The Islamic Center of Northeast Florida started in 1978. It posts pictures of community activities on its web site, showing volunteers at the homeless shelter and children on a camping trip.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion, there's about 2.5 million Muslims living in the United States. Religion experts said the minority group is often the focus of religious discrimination.
University of North Florida associate professor of religious studies Julie Ingersoll said when it comes to Muslims' faith in Islam, there tends to be fear and lack of understanding from other religious groups.
“In the US, before September 11th, Americans knew almost nothing about Islam. But more recently, people have taken a lot more interest in Islam and there are all kinds of misperceptions,” said Ingersoll.
Ingersoll said just like any religion, the Islamic faith has a set of core principles.
“There's some serious tensions over Islam and the tensions I think have been flamed by some political leaders rather than trying to foster a way for people to understand how some of their neighbors are different from them,” said Ingersoll.
Call our partner First Coast Crime Stoppers at 1-866-845-TIPS if you have any information. You will remain anonymous and could receive a cash reward if your tip leads to an arrest.
Source: First Coast News