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Islamic Center Damaged in ‘Suspicious’ Fire on First Day of Ramadan

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The authorities said they were investigating a fire that significantly damaged an Islamic center in Missouri on Friday, the first day of fasting in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as possible arson.

The Cape Girardeau, Mo., police said they were pursuing leads about the fire, at the Islamic Center of Cape Girardeau.

Shortly before the fire began about 5 a.m., a man was captured on a security camera engaging in “suspicious activity,” according to Norman Baker, a Cape Girardeau Fire Department battalion chief.

He declined to elaborate, but said the fire had been deemed “suspicious in nature” and was being investigated with help from the F.B.I.; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the Missouri fire marshal.

No one was injured in the fire, which appeared to have started in the entrance to the center, which occupies the first floor of a two-and-a-half-story building, Chief Baker said. Investigators have not yet determined how the fire started, said John Ham, an A.T.F. spokesman.

The Cape Girardeau Police Department said it was asking anyone who might have driven by the center before 5 a.m. to call detectives and report “anything they may have witnessed.”

“There was a person on the video, but we do not know who that person is,” said Shafiq Malik, who handles administrative issues at the center. “We are just hoping it’s something else other than hate. But you never know, in this time, what’s going on.”

Sgt. Joseph Hann, a Cape Girardeau police spokesman, said a man had made threats against the center about two years ago, which prompted the department to post an officer outside.

“They’re an integral part of the community, and everybody welcomes them into our area,” Sergeant Hann said. “We’ve never had issues there.”

Mr. Malik agreed that the center, which was founded in 1999 and usually draws about 100 worshipers to Friday prayers, had been accepted in Cape Girardeau.

“We’ve never had any threats from anyone, and we’ve been around here for a long time,” he said. “So it’s not anything like that here. But you never know.”

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said it was important for the authorities to investigate the possibility that the fire was started on purpose, given that the blaze was deemed suspicious and damaged a house of worship on a religiously significant day. Ramadan, a period of fasting for Muslims around the world, is the most holy month on the Islamic calendar.

The center had been closed for services for more than a month because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Malik said, so no one was inside when the fire broke out. Four families who live above the center made it out safely, officials said.

Rebecca Wu, an F.B.I. spokeswoman, confirmed that the bureau was helping local authorities. “If, in the course of the local investigation, information comes to light of a potential federal violation, the F.B.I. is prepared to investigate,” she said.

The center’s imam, Tahsin Khalid, was surveying the damage on Friday, according to his wife, Naghma Khalid. She said her husband had been flooded with calls from officials and religious leaders in the area.

“People have been very nice and very supportive,” Ms. Khalid said. “We are being showered with offers of space for praying and food, even at this time of Covid-19.”

A week later, someone set a fire outside an Islamic Center mosque in Escondido, Calif., officials said. Anti-Muslim graffiti referring to the New Zealand attacks was found at the scene.


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