CAIR-FL: ISLAMIC CENTER SET AFIRE
Local, state and federal investigators sifted through the ashes of a deliberately set fire at the Islamic Education Center of Florida on Thursday morning and tried to allay fears the arson was a crime of hate. They couldn't say for sure, however.
Initial reports said there was an explosion, but responding firefighters said were unaware of any blast.
Area Muslims feared the torching of the building, which serves as a mosque and educational center for children, was a hate crime, the next progressive step from a burglary nine months ago in which the culprits set fire to several religious artifacts inside.
"It is a concern that this is a hate crime," said Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Tampa, a Muslim advocacy group. Fueling the supposition was the fact that the FBI was at the scene collecting evidence.
FBI spokesman Al Rivera would not say for sure, though, that the arson was a hate crime.
"At this point, this is just an arson investigation," he said Thursday evening
He said the FBI would be investigating any arson attempt at any house of worship, because of the civil rights issues. . .
The center has been the target of vandalism in the past, neighbors said, but mostly by juveniles who broke windows or damaged property outside.
Bedier said the center has been there for 15 years and Thursday morning's arson was the fourth time over the past 18 months the building had been vandalized or broken into. The most recent occasion was nine months ago, when burglars set fire to the religious artifacts inside.
He said he hoped law enforcement officers would catch the arsonists, as area Muslims fear the next time will be worse.
"Obviously," he said, "when ever a house of worship, particularly a Muslim house of worship, is attacked, our concern is that it is a hate crime."
Federal authorities told him they are not ruling out hate as a motive, he said.
"This was not an accident," he said. "This was arson."