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Arson at California mosque is investigated as possible hate crime

An arson attack that took place over the weekend at a California mosque is being investigated as a possible hate crime, a law enforcement official said Sunday.

Debris from what appeared to be a Molotov cocktail was found outside the Tracy Islamic Center on Saturday morning, said Detective Dave Konecny, who works in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department’s Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force.

The mosque sustained minor fire damage on a wall and side door, estimated by law enforcement at about $1,000. Weather stripping at the mosque’s door prevented the flammable liquid from seeping inside, said Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento Valley chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“The community is hurt,” he said. “Parents are having to explain to their kids what happened. They’re trying to remain hopeful in the current climate.”

Elkarra said Muslims in the Tracy area appreciated the prompt response of law enforcement. In addition to the Sheriff’s Department, FBI agents showed up on the scene on Sunday to investigate the arson, according to Saifi Raniwala, a trustee at the Islamic Center.

Muslims both locally and nationwide are nervous about an upswing in mosque incidents following terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris and San Bernardino. Earlier this month, the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a report saying more mosques have been the target of threats, vandalism and other incidents this year than in any previous year tracked by the group.

On Dec. 11, a fire broke out at a mosque in California’s Coachella Valley, leading to one arrest. Days later, two mosques in Los Angeles County’s South Bay area were found vandalized — cases that were investigated as hate crimes.

In Tracy, the arson is believed to have occurred sometime between 8 p.m. Friday and 6 a.m. Saturday, when people began arriving for morning prayers. Deputies searched the area without success for cameras that might have captured footage of the incident.

Meanwhile, FBI agents told mosque leaders they are looking at the possibility that a suspect or suspects jumped a fence before throwing the bottle of flammable liquid, said Raniwala, one of the Tracy Islamic Center’s board members. An FBI representative did not respond to an inquiry from the Los Angeles Times.

The Tracy Islamic Center had its grand opening in September 2014 following a 15-year fundraising campaign. The facility’s completion was a source of excitement for Muslims in the area, who had been worshiping at a small house where prayers were frequently conducted outside, Elkarra said.

Raniwala said the center is now “open for prayers” — and in the process of installing a security system.

“We are going to continue to do the prayers at the regular time,” he said. “But we are going to be more vigilant, obviously, for the safety of the physical structure and the people who attend the services.”


©2015 Los Angeles Times

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