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Spiritual Solidarity After Tampa Mosque Fire

Feb 27, 2017

It was early Friday morning when someone set fire to a mosque in New Tampa. An investigation is underway. People from the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group, want the incident to be investigated as a hate crime. 

But, the faith community is looking beyond what has happened. 

Friday is the holiest day of the week for Muslims. Around 2 a.m. Friday morning, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue said that someone intentionally set fire to the side of the Islamic Society of New Tampa's mosque

No one was inside. 

A few hours later, a post goes on social media, calling for an interfaith gathering at the mosque for that evening. 

By midday, a trail of soot with shoe impressions leads to a broken glass side door at the mosque. A cleanup crew tends to the water and smoke damage inside. 

Fire damage of the mosque
Credit Quincy Walters / WUSF News

Mahud Ahmed, who attends the mosque, said he's hurt. 

"To see somebody who hates us to the extent that they would try to burn down the place, that's very sad," Ahmed said. 

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Friday evening, about 150 people formed a circle outside of the mosque. They listened as a rabbi, reverend and the mosque's imam offered messages of spiritual solidarity. 

Deborah James, who's Jewish, cried as she listened. Afterwards, she said she talked to a woman who goes to the mosque. 

"She was joking that it was just a little fire," James said. "And I said, 'It doesn't matter if it's just a little fire.' The fact that it happened is just horrible."

The imam of the mosque, Junaid Khan, said that he was heartbroken when he woke up to the news. He said he doesn't want to say the arson was a good thing, but he said something good did come of it. 

"This is - what's it called? - a blessing in disguise," Khan said. "Had this not happened, we would not have seen this beautiful community, this beautiful gathering at our mosque today. This would never have happened."

Nearby, kids are on the mosque's playground - seemingly unaware of what's happened. 

Caitlin Cook, who's Catholic, watches her 3-year-old play. 

"It's important for my kid to see that everybody needs to be treated equally and fairly and with kindness," she said. "And people need to see that we're here to support them." 

Chakira Parker, who's African-American and Muslim, watches her kids on the playground. She said today's political climate reminds her of what her parents and grandparents struggled with during the Civil Rights era. 

"I feel like there is a[n] active warrant allowed right now within the whole fabric that's been happening ever since the elections," Parker said. 

Her 11-year-old son, Tahir, would ask the arsonist this: "We didn't do anything to you guys, so why are you doing it to us?"

About an hour into the gathering, the imam Junaid Khan walked into a building near the singed mosque. And others follow for the evening prayer. 

Khan said that with the Tampa community's support, it's almost as if the fire never happened. 

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On Saturday, about 200 people gathered at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay's mosque for an open house to educate people about Islam.

About 200 gather for an open house about Islam the day after the mosque arson
Credit Quincy Walters / WUSF News

It was scheduled two weeks ago. 

People also brought well-wishing cards and donations. 

People who attended Saturday's mosque open house brought well-wishing cards and donations.
Credit Quincy Walters / WUSF News

Akiko Ross, who's an Evangelical Christian, came out. Like most women, she wore a hijab, a Muslim head scarf, out of respect for the religion. 

"Loving your neighbor as yourself means that you wrap yourself in their skin, so you understand who they are, where they come from and what they need," Ross said. 

At the interfaith gathering Friday night, Wilfredo Ruiz with CAIR  said that whoever started the fire intended to terrorize. But, he said, he's not going to give them the satisfaction of calling it an act of terror.