Fire that destroyed South Texas mosque ruled arson

AP News
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Posted: Feb 08, 2017 8:25 PM

VICTORIA, Texas (AP) — A fire that destroyed a South Texas mosque has been ruled arson, but there's no evidence of a hate crime at this time, federal investigators said Wednesday.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Houston did not reveal the nature of the evidence that led to the arson conclusion related to the Jan. 28 fire at the Victoria Islamic Center.

"We have to hold that back in the event we get a suspect," said ATF Senior Special Agent Nicole Strong in an email to The Associated Press.

As for the underlying motive for arson, Strong said that remains to be determined. "It means there is no evidence to suggest a hate crime, but that could change if new evidence is uncovered," she said.

No one was hurt in the pre-dawn fire in Victoria, about 80 miles north of Corpus Christi. Authorities say the mosque was burglarized about a week before the blaze.

A $30,000 reward is being offered for information leading to arrests and indictments, ATF said Wednesday. The agency, the Victoria Islamic Center and Crime Stoppers each offered $10,000 toward the reward.

The absence of any hateful messages or graffiti at the scene of the fire leaves no proof of a hate crime, said Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of the Texas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. That could change once a suspect is identified and investigators are able to access online statements and browsing histories, Carroll said.

The fire occurred hours after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that blocked citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. That order was later blocked by the federal courts, but the Trump administration is appealing the court order.

Dr. Shahid Hashmi, a Victoria surgeon and the mosque's president, said he's satisfied with the investigation so far.

A GoFundMe campaign that set a goal of raising $850,000 to rebuild the mosque was closed after topping $1.1 million, proving "that the majority of people are well-meaning and have good hearts," Hashmi said.

Demolition of the mosque's ruins is underway. Hashmi said after that work is finished, architects will be engaged to design the new mosque. "Our priority right now is security," he said.

In the meantime, Temple B'nai Israel, Victoria's synagogue, opened its doors to the displaced Islamic worshippers. The temple's worshippers can relate to what those who attend the Victoria Islamic Center are experiencing. In 2007, vandals spray-painted swastikas and anti-Semitic obscenities across the temple. One man was sentenced to eight years in prison for the incident and another received a 10-year deferred sentence.