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Muslims in Victoria, Texas shake off their shock after mosque burned down

“I think that sadness, that sorrow, will stay with us forever.”

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Summarized from Hannah Allam for BuzzFeed


The Muslims watching from across the street saw the mosque disappear slowly, the flames creeping over the roof and licking the copper domes before turning the heart of their community into ash.

Abed Ajrami, 50, a longtime member of the mosque, stood with friends behind the firefighters’ cordon as a light rain began to fall, mixing with their tears. He took a photo of the blaze and posted it on Facebook.

“We will rebuild, with LOVE!” Ajrami wrote as the caption.

That message at that moment — early Jan. 28, hours after President Donald Trump signed a travel ban targeting Muslims — made the news of a suspicious fire in a small Texas town go viral, attracting more attention than the 35 or so other incidents of threats, vandalism, and arson at US mosques since January.

The mosque was still smoldering when a GoFundMe appeal went up, eventually drawing more than $1 million in a week, from 23,000 donors in 90 countries. Locally, four churches and a Jewish temple offered their space for the Muslim congregation to meet until their mosque was rebuilt. Classes were delayed at the Catholic high school so students could march to the site in solidarity. Townsfolk, some with pro-Trump bumper stickers on their trucks, showed up for a prayer service that grew so big police had to close the road.

Leaders of the Victoria Islamic Center, as the mosque officially is known, decided to keep politics out of their public statements while investigators worked. No arson talk. No Trump. Besides, several Muslims said, saying such things aloud made real the awful idea that a stranger could hate Muslims enough to destroy a house of God.

Four months later, however, interviews with Muslims in Victoria make it clear that the donations and interfaith support tell only half the story. In truth, the fire devastated this tiny community in ways not even a million dollars can fix.

This Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that began May 27, Muslims here are worshiping in stuffy double-wide trailers with an armed guard outside on busy days — and still some families are too scared to return. Their sense of security is gone, and their sense of belonging is shaken as they struggle to reconcile how the neighbors who turned up to pray with them after the fire are the same who voted for a president whose anti-Muslim talk, they believe, helped to fuel it.

Within a year or so, a new mosque is expected to stand at the site, but rebuilding is not the same as recovering, said Shahid Hashmi, 70, who co-founded the Islamic Center in 2000.

“Having witnessed something like that, which we couldn’t even imagine? That it could happen right here?” he said. “I think that sadness, that sorrow, will stay with us forever.” ...

In 1984, Hashmi, a surgeon, moved to Victoria from an even smaller town, nearby Beeville. Hashmi, his wife, Rakshi, and their three children say they were the second Muslim family here at the time; an Egyptian neurologist had arrived earlier.

As more Muslims came, mainly for jobs in medicine or at the local branch of the University of Houston, they began praying together on Fridays. By the late 1990s, another wave of families had landed in Victoria, and the community outgrew the donated house they were using for prayers and Qur’an study.

“We started dreaming about having our own good building, a masjid,” Hashmi said, using the Arabic word for mosque.

Mosque members paid about $45,000 for the 2-acre plot near the railroad tracks, but it took several more years before the community had collected another $400,000 to build on it. In 2000, the grand opening of the Islamic Center was a big affair — Houston Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon and Yusuf Islam, the singer once known as Cat Stevens, showed up. The main event was an open house for the public, a gesture to show the mosque’s intention of serving as a visible, active pillar of Victoria.

“And then here came 9/11,” Hashmi said. ...

This closeness with the broader community was forged through years of Muslim civic participation: Rotary Club, Habitat for Humanity, Christ’s Kitchen, Relay for Life. The wave of attention Victoria received right after the fire came in part because the relationship defied all kinds of stereotypes: a Trump-voting Texas town rallying around its respected Muslim community.

“My patients walk into my office and after I’ve examined them, done whatever I needed to do, they hand me a check,” Hashmi said, describing the grassroots effort to rebuild the mosque. “It’s just beyond our dreams, that kind of support.” ...

In March, the anxiety eased with the arrest of Marq Vincent Perez, 25, who was picked up on an unrelated charge and tied to the mosque attack by a confidential informant, social media messages, two laptops, and other evidence presented to a federal judge in Corpus Christi.

Perez is deeply suspicious of Muslims and plotted a vigilante operation in the name of protecting the city, according to a federal agent whose court testimony was posted online by the local newspaper, the Victoria Advocate. ...

Perez’s attorney has told local new outlets that most of the allegations are based upon “hearsay statements” of an informant and would be challenged in court. ...

As the groundbreaking time neared, volunteers planted a row of American flags out front. They set up an easel to display the plans for the new mosque. They didn’t have a microphone, which became a problem when the imam’s invocation was drowned out by Mexican accordion music blasting from a cookout on the adjacent lot.

“May you protect us from any evil or harm,” Imam Osama Hassan prayed over a norteño song. ...

Click here for the rest of the story from BuzzFeed.

On June 22nd, Federal authorities charged Marq Vincent Perez with a federal hate crime of damaging the Victoria Islamic Center "because of the religious character of the property," along with one count of using fire to commit a federal felony and another charge for possession of an unregistered firearm.

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