Cody Duty / Houston Chronicle / AP

Arson eyed in Houston-area mosque fire

A blaze that destroyed part of the religious center caused no injuries but sparked fears of a hate crime

A Houston mosque and educational center suffered a severe fire Friday morning, and investigators are trying to piece together what happened, with members of the religious community saying the fire was set on purpose.

The fire started at about 5:30 a.m. in the back of the Quba Islamic Institute in southeast Houston, completely destroying the rear section of the building. No one was injured in the blaze, fire officials said. The facility was closed, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Ahsan Zahid, 25, the son of mosque’s imam, Zahid Abdullah, said investigators told him an accelerant, like gasoline, was present at the site of the fire. An accelerant could indicate that the fire was deliberately set.

“They had a dog the dog was able to sniff the accelerants,” said Zahid. “It was not an accident.”

Fire officials in Houston told Al Jazeera they do not know yet what started the fire and that the investigation is ongoing. "I’ve gotten no information about the cause," said Kenyatta Parker, public information officer for the Houston fire department.

In the aftermath of the fire, nearby churches have made spaces available to the Quba congregation.

“They’ve offered us help in using their facilities for teaching, for a wide range of things, which was very gracious of them,” said Zahid.

The mosque had not received any threats prior to the fire, but afterward, “someone commented on our Facebook that it should keep on burning,” Zahid said.

In the wake of the killing of three young Muslims earlier this week by a man in North Carolina, over what police said was a parking dispute, the issue of hateful violence against Muslims has been a topic of national conversation.

And its made members of the Quba Islamic Institute concerned that the fire was set on purpose in an attempt to intimidate Muslims.

"The first thing we think about is hate crimes that could go on," Hala Saadeh, who attends the mosque, told local television station KTRK. "It says right on the front — Islamic Institute. We're not hiding ourselves."

Zahid said that the part of the Institute the fire hit had housed computers, carpets, filing cabinets and had an air conditioning unit on top of it. All told, he estimates the cost of the damage to the 3,000 square foot annex to be at least $100,000.

“There is literally nothing left that we can salvage,” Zahid said.

The FBI is monitoring the investigation, as it has in other instances where federal civil rights laws may have been violated, the local ABC affiliate reported.

A statement on the Quba Islamic Institute’s Facebook page also encouraged calm. “Let us be clear: the investigation is ongoing. Please do not spread hate; spread love, tolerance, and harmony, just as Prophet Muhammad (S) did.”

Zahid said that Friday prayers went ahead as planned. In a brief address during prayers, he said the imam told members that it is time “to be unified and not reach towards hate but to harmony and our fellow human beings.”

“People are scared,” Zahid said, adding that the fire has compelled parents to explain to their kids anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S. “They don’t want to have this conversation with their children, and it’s unfortunate we have to have this conversation with our children. We’re trying to help each other get through it.”

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