A Florida mosque once attended by the Orlando nightclub shooter was intentionally set on fire early Monday morning, authorities said, on one of the holiest days of the Muslim calendar, and shortly after the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
“A fire at any place of worship is alarming, regardless of the circumstances,” says a statement from the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office. “Video captured at the Fort Pierce Islamic Center shows an individual approached the east side of the building just moments before a flash is seen and the fire starts.”
“The Sheriff’s Office is actively investigating this as an arson with the assistance of the St. Lucie County Fire District, the Florida State Fire Marshall’s Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Federal Bureau of Investigations,” the statement continued. “As soon as we are able, we will release the video of this incident and ask for the public to assist us in identifying the person or persons responsible.”
A passerby spotted flames coming out of the mosque at 12:30 a.m. and called 911, the sheriff’s office said. No one was hurt in the blaze and the extent of damages is unclear.
Asked about possible motives for the arson attack, Major David Thompson told reporters that “we all know the implications of the date and the time of year that this is, the 9/11 anniversary. Is that related? I would not want to speculate but certainly that is in the back of our minds.”
The mosque was occupied just an hour before it went up in flames, according to Wilfredo Ruiz, spokesman for the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Parishioners, he said, were observing the end of the Day of Arafat, a day of fasting preceding Eid al-Adha, one of Islam’s most significant holy days.
The attack on the mosque, Ruiz said, is equivalent to a “Christian community on Christmas” being attacked.
“The concern extends beyond this particular community into the broader community and nationwide,” Ruiz said. “This is big news. On Eid holiday, an arson attack was done in a mosque in America. It’s very impacting to the American Muslim community.”
The fire comes exactly three months after Omar Mateen, who once attended the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, opened fire inside a gay Orlando nightclub called Pulse, killing 49 people. Mateen, who claimed allegiance to the so-called Islamic State terror group during the attack, was killed by authorities.
“What are they going to do next? That’s the question in the community. They’re expecting something worse.””
In the months since the Orlando shooting, threats have been made agains the mosque and it has been the site of escalating anti-Muslim hate incidents.
In June, disturbing voicemails were left at the mosque, in which callers used racial slurs and threatened physical harm. People sometimes yelled threats outside the mosque. Threats on social media included a post suggesting that people “lock the doors when they are inside―- and burn this place to the ground.” People driving by the mosque have intentionally driven through puddles to splash parishioners, according to Ruiz.
Later that same month, a group of 200 motorcyclists circled the mosque for 15 minutes in an effort, organizer Randy Anderton told TC Palm, to show that they “stand united against those willing to destroy our country and what we stand for.”
And in July, a 25-year-old man allegedly attacked a parishioner outside the mosque, viciously punching him while saying, “You Muslims need to go back to where you came from.” The attacker, Taylor Mazzanti, now faces hate crime charges.
After Monday’s fire, Ruiz said the community’s deeply worried.
“What are they going to do next?” Ruiz said. “That’s the question in the community. They’re expecting something worse.”
The fire comes amid a frightening surge in anti-Muslim crimes across the country. Earlier this summer, over two weeks, there were five mosque fires in the Tampa area alone, two of which were ruled arson.
Just this weekend in Brooklyn, New York City, a woman allegedly screamed, “Get the the fuck out of America, bitches” before attacking two Muslim women and their babies. And in New Hampshire Sunday, someone threw a “rock-like object” through the window of a mosque.
There have been 100 hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. since November’s Paris terror attacks, according to the group Muslim Advocates. The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University found that there were more acts of anti-Muslim violence and vandalism in 2015 than in any year since Sept. 11. And a report earlier this year from the Council on American-Islamic Relations found 78 instances in 2015 where mosques were targeted for vandalism, arson and other types of destruction ― a nearly 400 percent increase from the year before.
The Huffington Post has also recorded more than 260 acts of anti-Muslim violence, discrimination and political speech in the United States this year.
“This is no longer an isolated incident,” Ruiz told HuffPost of the mosque fire.
“Obviously we would like the person apprehended as soon as possible,” he added. “This could be considered an act of terror. Imagine this mosque was set ablaze when there was 15 or 20 people inside.”
On a photo of the mosque posted to Facebook by the sheriff’s office Monday morning, none of the comments expressed dismay or sadness at the act of arson.
“Well I hope there’s enough structural damage that it can be tore down so they can go away from White City area,” one commenter wrote.