Escondido mosque scorched in ‘hate crime’

uthorities investigate the scene after an alleged arson attack at the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Esconidido, California, on March 24, 2019./NBC San Diego screenshot

A ticking time bomb of hate went off around 3:15 a.m. Sunday as Escondido’s only mosque was torched by a suspect who left a note referring to the New Zealand mosque killings earlier this month.

“During the early morning hours of March 24, 2019, the Escondido Police and Fire Communication Center received a 911 phone call from the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque on (318 W. Sixth Ave) in Escondido,” Escondido police Lt. Chris Lick said. “The caller reported the building on fire and had been extinguished with a fire extinguisher.

“Escondido Police and Fire Department personnel arrived and determined the incident to be an arson,” Lick said. “Graffiti left behind by the suspect made reference to the shooting incident in New Zealand.”

The note was found in the parking lot referencing the shootings this month that killed 50 people at mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. Lick did not elaborate about the contents of the note.

Seven people were engaged in religious activities inside the mosque, according to Lick. “No one was injured during the incident and the structure had minor damage to the outside façade,” he said.

One of the mosque’s exterior walls was visibly scorched, according to Lick. It appeared that the fire’s damage was contained to this area of the mosque..

Yusef Miller, a member of the Muslim community in Escondido, said it was fortunate the fire happened before the early morning prayer when there weren’t as many people at the mosque.

“God bless that it didn’t happen that way,” Mill said to NBC7 San Diego.

Miller said those inside the building were able to put out the fire with a fire extinguisher before firefighters arrived on the scene.

“There are people who sleep there overnight,” 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.”

A morning prayer at the center was canceled while a team of law enforcement agencies investigated.

Escondido Police and Fire Department Arson investigators, along with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Bomb/Arson Unit responded to assist with the investigation. Agents from the FBI and BATF are also assisting with the investigation. No suspects have been identified.

“The incident is being investigated as both an arson and a hate crime,” Lick said. “Uniformed officers are providing additional patrols in the area of the mosque.”

The stretch of West Sixth Avenue in front of the mosque was closed for a time while officials investigated; however, Miller said it won’t stop the mosque from remaining open as a place of worship.

Miller said the community has seen a simple, “yet very powerful” show of support from Escondido residents and local advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego, Care San Diego, East County Justice Coalition and the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego.

A prayer and security vigil were planned at the mosque from 8 to 9 p.m. Sunday to show support and protect those who wish to participate in evening prayer.

Dar-ul-Arqam was built four years ago and serves a community of several hundred people in Escondido, Miller said.

He said the tension is high following the fatal shooting in New Zealand.

“We’re not surprised by this incident,” Miller said. “But, we’re very on edge right now.”

Dustin Craun, the head of the Council of American-Islamic Relations in San Diego, said his civil rights group stands with the mosque.

“We are grateful that someone was inside the mosque and was able to act quickly to put the fire out. We ask anyone with information to come forward and contact the Escondido Police Department. We stand in solidarity with our community members who attend the Islamic Center of Escondido,” he said in a statement.

Members of the public were encouraged to call the police department to report suspicious activity in the area of the mosque.  Anyone with information about the investigation was encouraged to contact the Escondido Police Department. EPD’s Community Safety Tip Line is at (760) 743-8477. The police web site is http://police.escondido.org.

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