Police investigating a fire at a Coachella, Calif., mosque that erupted Friday are treating the incident as a possible hate crime and have detained a “person of interest.”
Moments before the blaze erupted at the Islamic Society of the Coachella Valley, some witnesses described hearing a “loud boom,” according to the Desert Sun. The fire began just after noon, about 15 minutes before an afternoon prayer service was scheduled to begin, the Desert Sun reported. Reymundo Nour, the mosque’s acting imam, told the paper that his place of worship was “firebombed.”
“A person of interest was quickly identified and was subsequently located and detained pending further investigation,” the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department stated in a news release posted online.
“The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department/Coachella Police Department, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and Cal-Fire continue to actively investigate this incident,” the statement added.
Nobody was injured in the blaze, which forced an immediate evacuation of the building, but smoke left damages throughout the structure, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Occurring a little more than a week after two Islamic State-inspired terrorists killed 14 people and injured 22 more during a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., the fire comes amid a time of heightened tensions for American Muslims. In recent days, mosques across the country have reported being the targets of threats and vandalism, according to CBS News. Offices belonging to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Santa Clara, Calif., and Washington, D.C., were evacuated after letters containing a powdery substance arrived at each building on Thursday.
In one of the more inflammatory incidents of intimidation, a severed pigs head was left outside the Aqsa Islamic Society in Philadelphia, prompting police to increase patrols, CBS reported.
“It’s horribly lamentable that we would paint any group as undesirables based on the actions of an extremely small number of radical folks that don’t represent the religion in any way,” Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, told the Los Angeles Times after visiting “If in fact it was done with the mosque as a target … it’s reprehensible, and the people who perpetrated that act should be treated the way we would any other terrorist.”
Friday’s fire is the second time in the past year that an incident at the mosque has been investigated as a possible hate crime. Last year, the Desert Sun reported, five shots were fired into the building, but no one was injured.
Salahaldeen Alwishah, 27, told the Times that he believed “it was the will of God” that more people weren’t inside the mosque when the fire began.
“We were just here trying to be free and practice our religion just like everybody else,” he said.
He added that the incident has left worshipers with a “feeling of devastation.”
“We see this as a cowardly act of vandalism that we do not tolerate in our community,” Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez said in statement released Friday evening. “Freedom of religion is one of our core values in this country, so any time we witness violence or vandalism directed at a religious institution, it flies in the face of everything we stand for and believe in as Americans.