California mosque fire: Arson and graffiti sparks police investigation

Police and firefighters were called to the Islamic Centre of Escondido, north of San Diego on Sunday

An arson investigation is underway at the Islamic Center of Escondido in Escondido, Calif., early Sunday, March 24, 2019. AP
An arson investigation is underway at the Islamic Center of Escondido in Escondido, Calif., early Sunday, March 24, 2019. AP

California police are investigating whether a fire at a southern California mosque on Sunday was a hate crime after graffiti left at the site referenced the shooting attacks at two mosques in New Zealand.

No one was injured in the incident but people in attendance at the mosque identified the fire and put it out before it could cause mass amounts of damage.

Morning prayers at the mosque were cancelled as law enforcement investigated the scene.

Graffiti left at the driveway of the mosque referred to the March 15 mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left 50 people dead at the hands of a far-right terrorist who espoused hatred for Muslims.

The exact words in the graffiti message were not released by police.

Escondido Police Lieutenant Chris Lick said it appeared that a chemical accelerant was used to set the fire.

No suspects were reported.

Along with local police and fire officials, agents with the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the case as both an arson and a hate crime, it wasreported.

Yusef Miller, a spokesman for the Islamic community in Escondido, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that people at mosques across the region need to remain vigilant.

"Everyone is on edge," he told the newspaper. ""When they connected it to New Zealand, it gave us more of a mortal fear that something outlandish might happen."

Seven people were inside the mosque at the time of the fire, police told the KNSD TV station. They were able to put out the fire with an extinguisher before firefighters arrived on the scene, KNSD reported.

"There are people who sleep there overnight," Mr Miller said. "They heard the sounds, they smelled some funny smells, and there was a letter saying something connecting to New Zealand at the same time. So, this made everybody especially on edge."

The Escondido mosque was created four years ago and serves several hundred people in the city of about 143,000 residents, Mr Miller said.

He told KNSD that worshippers are undeterred.

"We won't stop praying," Mr Miller said. "We won't stop gathering."

Updated: March 26, 2019 11:44 AM


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