Mosque leaders speculate 'hate crime' took place before attendee arrested

by Kelly Ledbetter |

(CNN / Screen Shot)Houston firefighters responded to a fire set in a mosque on Christmas Day.

HOUSTON (Christian Examiner) – On Christmas Day, only about an hour after people had been present praying, Houston firefighters responded to a two-alarm fire—in a mosque.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) initially declared the incident "suspicious" because the fire appeared to originate from several places. Special Agent Nicole Strong of the ATF's Houston Field Division said the fire had "multiple points of origin," adding the ATF customarily investigated "when houses of worship are affected," CNN reported.

"Given the Charlie Hebdo and other attacks in early 2015, along with the most recent Islamist slaughter in Paris, anti-Muslim hate crimes seem bound to rise again in 2015."
- Mark Potok

On Dec. 26, the incident classification was upgraded: "Through the on-going investigation by the joint- investigative team, lead [sic] by the Houston Arson Bureau, the investigation classification has been upgraded to INCENDIARY," the fire department said in a press release.

People who worshiped at the Islamic Center of Houston said they feared the fire was a hate crime, according to ABC13. "We don't have anything here high tech, cooking or kitchen—anything that can cause this kind of fire. The only thing [it's] pointing to is it could be hate or something," Saleen Memon said.

The fire was discovered about 2:45 on Christmas afternoon at the mosque in southwest Houston and took about 80 firefighters to extinguish.

"When firefighters opened the rear doors, they discovered heavy fire and smoke," Deputy Chief Fernando Herrera of the Houston Fire Department said, according to ABC. "They began their attack cautiously at first," said Herrera.

The firefighters were extremely careful, fearing the roof might collapse because of the extreme heat. The mosque was heavily damaged, and an adjacent business sustained smoke damage.

Officials have since determined that the fire was likely deliberately set.

Meanwhile, worshipers have been given the use of a nearby ballroom for prayer.

The Houston Chronicle Dec. 31 reported the arrest of 37-year-old Gary Nathaniel Moore who apparently was the last person seen at the mosque before the fire. 

Moore told investigators he went to the mosque five times a day to pray seven days a week for five years. After spotting the man on surveillance videos a search of his home was made and materials recovered which led to his arrest.

A leader of the mosque which is operated by the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, said he does not know Moore.

"We are really very surprised and saddened by this whole thing," he told the Houston Chronicle.

Hailing the firefighter's response on Christmas day, U.S. Representative Al Green addressed an earlier statement by a mosque attendee that it was a hate crime.

"If this was not a hate crime, it should not be exploited as such," said Green. "If it was, it should be exposed."

NEW REPORT ON HATE CRIME

The 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 70.6 percent of Americans are Christian (25.4 percent Evangelical Protestant), while only 0.9 percent are Muslim. However, Muslims are reportedly more likely to be victims of hate crimes than are evangelicals, according to the FBI.

The FBI's 2014 Hate Crime Statistics say of the 5,462 single-bias incidents reported 47 percent were racially motivated, while 18.6 percent were motivated by religious bias; in 2013, 17.4 percent were reported to be religious hate crimes, a significant rise.

A breakdown of the bias motivation of religious-biased offenses in 2014 showed 16.3 percent were anti-Islamic (compared with 14.2 percent in 2013).

"The recent spike in hate incidents targeting mosques nationwide is unprecedented and should be of concern to all Americans," said Basim Elkarra of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Commenting on the FBI report, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote, "The anti-Muslim numbers have been rising slowly but steadily since 2012," adding the numbers are probably even higher than reported to the FBI.

"In that period, ISIS beheadings and other atrocities have pushed radical Islam into the news in a way that almost certainly has fueled anti-Muslim hatred," Potok said. "Given the Charlie Hebdo and other attacks in early 2015, along with the most recent Islamist slaughter in Paris, anti-Muslim hate crimes seem bound to rise again in 2015."

While the overall number of reported hate crimes has decreased from 2013 to 2014, hate crimes against Muslims has risen substantially, a strong suggestion that data from 2015 will show the same trend.

"We urge law enforcement authorities to investigate this incident as a hate crime and to bring the perpetrators to justice," said Elkarra about a Sacremento mosque that was apparently firebombed.

Still, there are other reports that suggest violent incidents against Christians go unreported and underreported as hate crimes. 

In October, a 26-year-old shooter apparently asked victims in a horrifice massacre at a community college if they were Christians before he shot them in the head, execution style. And in June, a man with ties to a white supremacist group targeted black Christians inside a Charleston, South Carolina church where he cut short nine lives.

Some say both are examples of hate crimes that are religiously biased, but might not have been reported that way.

A handful of hate crimes against Muslims and Sikhs, who can be mistaken for Muslims on the basis of dress, has recently been reported in California. Mosques have been vandalized across the country.

A handful of hate crimes against Muslims and Sikhs, who can be mistaken for Muslims on the basis of dress, has recently been reported in California. Mosques have been vandalized across the country.