The mosque where Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen occasionally worshiped was intentionally set on fire this weekend, authorities in Florida said.
The St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office said emergency crews responded to the Islamic Centre of Fort Pierce shortly after midnight Sunday – the 15th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks – and extinguished the flames that were spilling out of the mosque. Authorities are investigating the incident as arson.
“A fire at any place of worship is alarming, regardless of the circumstances,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement. “Video captured at the Fort Pierce Islamic Centre shows an individual approached the east side of the building just moments before a flash is seen and the fire starts.”
Sheriff’s officials said they will soon release the video to the public and ask for help identifying the suspect in the arson case.
The fire came at the beginning of Eid al-Adha – the holiday of the sacrifice. As The Washington Post‘s Pamela Constable noted, the three-day festival “commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim, the figure known as Abraham in the Bible, to follow God’s command to sacrifice his son Ishmael, who was later saved by an angel and lived to be 137.” The holiday is not to be confused with Eid al-Fitr, a separate festival that marks the end of Ramadan.
The Islamic Centre of Fort Pierce had an Eid prayer scheduled for 9 am Monday. Those who wanted to worship were instructed to go to another mosque in the area.
“It is with a very heavy heart that we have to announce that last night around midnight, there was an arson attack on our Mosque,” the Islamic Centre said in a statement early Monday. “Please keep us in your Du’as and prayers.”
It’s unclear how much damage was done to the mosque. But a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations Florida chapter said the “whole centre is a crime scene now.”
Early Monday, Major David Thompson with the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office told reporters it was a “horrible tragedy not only for the Islamic centre but for our community.”
“I don’t want to speculate on a motive,” he said. “We all know the implications of the date and the time of year that this is – the 9/11 anniversary. Is that related? I wouldn’t want to speculate, but certainly that is in the back of our minds.”
Mr Thompson told reporters that “evidence has revealed that this fire was set intentionally.”
The mosque became a locus of attention in June, after Mateen opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and leaving dozens of others injured. Mateen was killed in a shootout with police inside the Pulse nightclub.
Mateen occasionally attended the Islamic Centre of Fort Pierce, coming to prayers with his father and young son, Imam Shafiq Rahman told The Post in June. Mateen’s three sisters were active volunteers at the mosque, which has about 150 congregants.
“He was the most quiet guy – he never talked to anyone,” Mr Rahman said days after the Orlando massacre. “He would come and pray and leave.”
As previously reported, Mateen was at the mosque just two days before the deadly shooting rampage. On that evening, a Friday, “he knelt for over an hour on the green carpet of the Fort Pierce mosque, praying with his young son.”
The first American to carry out a suicide bombing in Syria, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, also occasionally worshiped here before he left his car outside the mosque in 2014, flew to Syria, burned his US passport and blew himself up in an operation for an al-Qaeda affiliate.
Ibrahim Hooper, national spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said attacks against the American Muslim community are becoming a daily occurrence in America since Islamophobia moved into the mainstream.
“Unfortunately, within the past year, we’ve seen an unprecedented rise in bigotry in our society,” he said Monday, adding: “It’s becoming a great concern to the American Muslim community.”
In July, a witness said an intoxicated man made anti-Islamic remarks outside the mosque before assaulting a man who was there to worship, according to the Palm Beach Post.
“He said, ‘You Muslims need to go back to where you came from,’ ” the witness, Abdul Rauf Khan, told the newspaper. “He had been drinking. He was smelling bad. It was a vicious attack. He just started throwing punches.”
Authorities said at the time they were unable to confirm “any racially motivated comments” were made but the suspect, Taylor Anthony Mazzanti, was arrested and charged with felony battery, according to the newspaper.
Mr Hooper said it is up to the majority that does not hold anti-Islamic views to stand up and say so.
He said Muslims feel “under siege like never before in our history” and need support from others to push back against “all the voices of hate.”
The Washington Post