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Hate crime probe into arson attempt at Dar-ul-Arqam mosque

ESCONDIDO — An attempted arson at a city mosque has prompted the Escondido Police Department and federal law enforcement agencies to investigate a possible hate-crime motive behind the act.

Seven congregants were engaged in prayer at Dar-ul-Arqam mosque on March 24 when there was an attempt to burn down the Islamic center located on West Sixth Avenue near South Escondido Boulevard.

But the suspect, or suspects, left behind a clue. 

A graffiti note at the scene referenced the deadly terrorist attack by a white supremacist two weeks prior in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 50 dead and another 50 injured. 

A press release issued by Escondido police stated that the agency has teamed up with the FBI, ATF, Escondido Fire Department arson investigators and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department bomb and arson unit.

“There were seven people in the mosque during the fire who were there for religious purposes. No one was injured during the incident and the structure had minor damage to the outside façade,” the release states. “There have been no suspects identified and the investigation is ongoing. The incident is being investigated as both an arson and a hate crime. Uniformed officers are providing additional patrols in the area of the mosque.”

Lt. Chris Lick, public information officer for the Escondido Police Department, did not provide comment beyond pointing The Coast News to the press release when asked if the department had discovered any details about the perpetrator and the investigation’s expected timeline.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has reported that to date, few clues exist for the identity of the arsonist. But the building does have a security camera, which the Escondido Police Department told the newspaper it would search for clues. 

The attack did not burn down the mosque, but slightly damaged the building’s exterior. In response, Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque has launched a crowdfunding campaign on the website LaunchGood, with a goal of raising $20,000.

Donors from around the world have given nearly $3,000 to the cause as of March 26.

In a press release, the Muslim Leadership Council of San Diego called the attempted arson an “act of terrorism.”

“We want to call on the Muslim community, leaders and our Interfaith partners, to be vigilant about the safety and protection of places of worship,” said the council. “Islamophobia and hate crime activity against Muslims are on the rise and we must stand together as Americans to fight our common enemy, hate groups and individuals who commit acts of terror against any group of Americans.”

On the night of the attempted arson, San Diego County community members held a candlelight vigil in front of the mosque.

It was a display of interfaith solidarity and among the speakers was Rabbi David Castiglione of the Poway congregation Temple Adat Shalom.

“We don’t rise in anger, not the anger of revenge. We rise in anger for justice and righteousness,” said the rabbi, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. “We’re not saddened with the sadness that plunges us into despair but the sadness that lights the fire of that hope that says we must take care of each other, even those whose way has yet to find the light.”

Also attending the vigil were local political figures, including Escondido City Councilwomen Olga Diaz and Consuelo Martinez, as well as 50th U.S. Congressional District candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar. 

Diaz told The Coast News that, while some attempt to depoliticize what transpired in New Zealand and now Escondido, she believes the political climate created by President Donald Trump bears some of the blame.

“I don’t think that everybody is entirely comfortable talking about the root causes of it. So you’ll see some folks bring politics into it,” said Diaz. “I think that’s a strong component of it, right? That we currently have a president who, you know, just brushes right up to his own form of racism and emboldens people to feel that this type of behavior is acceptable.”

Further, Diaz said that she believes the event unfolding close to home gives the issue a more visceral sense of urgency for the local community. 

“It’s terrible what happens in anywhere, anywhere in the world, anywhere in our country. But when it happens in your own community, it forces you to like confront it,” she said. “Like this was not something you see on TV. This is something that happens and suddenly it brings everybody’s level of consciousness about crime, racism and hatred to the top.”

California Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron, who represents Escondido as part of her constituency for 75th District, also decried the attempted arson on social media.

“Acts of hate and violence will not be tolerated. In the wake of the New Zealand tragedy, it is appalling that this happened in our own backyard,” Waldron stated on Facebook. “Thankfully no one was injured. Our police and fire departments are investigating and asking everyone to remain vigilant. We need to work together and support our community. We are stronger when we are united.”