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Arson the latest incident in escalating attacks at Fort Pierce mosque

By Bill DiPaolo, Jorge Milian and Julius Whigham II, For Palm Beach Post, On 14 September 2016, Read Original
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FORT PIERCE — Standing outside thearson-damaged Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, Wilfredo Ruiz delivered a message for those responsible for the vandalism.

“We are not going anywhere. We are staying. My home is here. I was born in America. I am an American citizen. We are a part of you,” said Ruiz, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Florida. Ruiz served in the U.S. Navy from 1993 through 1997.

Arson the latest incident in escalating attacks at Fort Pierce mosque photo

Islamic Center members said Monday’s early morning fire is the latest incident in an escalating campaign of harassment and violence against the house of worship and its members.

The Islamic Center made national headlines when it was discovered that Orlando shooter Omar Mateen attended as a place of worship.

The center has received threatening phone calls. Motorists have driven over puddles to splash worshippers after Friday prayers. A worshipper was beaten and left with a broken jaw on July 2, Ruiz said.

Arson the latest incident in escalating attacks at Fort Pierce mosque photo

The number of incidents and criminal acts targeting Muslims in Florida has increased dramatically the past year. After only five such incidents in 2014, the number rose exponentially in 2015 to 26, said Thania Diaz Clevenger, CAIR’s civil rights director.

St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Maj. David Thompson says given the circumstances — the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and the beginning of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha — officials believe the intentionally set fire could be a hate crime. Members went to a neighboring mosque to participate in morning prayers.

One vandal was caught on a surveillance camera leaving the beige center with green trim set in a residential Fort Pierce neighborhood on West Midway Road. No amount of damage has been determined. No date is set for services to resume.

Arson the latest incident in escalating attacks at Fort Pierce mosque photo

The man in the surveillance footage was holding a bottle of “some sort of fluid,” and “papers or something like that” in his other hand. A large flash was seen soon after he exited the footage, Thompson said.

“He terrorized our community,” Ruiz said of the suspected arsonist. “Still now, he is terrorizing our community because we don’t where he is. We don’t know what he is capable of doing.”

Ahmed Bedier, founder of United Voices For America and a Florida-based community organizer and speaker urged authorities to investigate the case as a hate crime.

Arson the latest incident in escalating attacks at Fort Pierce mosque photo

“An attack on any house of worship is an attack on all houses of worship,” he said. “It is unacceptable.”

Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting local authorities with the investigation.

The suspected arson “could be retribution” against the Islamic Center for Mateen, the man Orlando police say shot and killed 49 persons on June 2 in the Pulse nightclub. Mateen sporadically attended the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, which has about 100 members.

Arson the latest incident in escalating attacks at Fort Pierce mosque photo

A knock on the door of Mateen’s father’s house in Port St. Lucie went unanswered Monday morning. Several American flags are in the ground in the front yard of the Port St. Lucie house of Seddique Mateen.

Tony Schneider, who lives next door to Seddique Matten and said he is close friends, last saw him three weeks ago when Mateen gave him mangos from his tree.

The two spoke often after the shooting, said Schneider, a retired Martin County detective.

Suspected mosque arson won’t scare Muslims, leader says photo

“We stood there the next day under that tree,” Schneider said, pointing to a patch of grass on his front lawn between their two houses. “He was crying. He told me, ‘I hate my son. I hate what he did. I built this great life in America. I love America.’ “

Schneider said he tried to console him.

“I told him, don’t hate your son. The son you hate is not your real son. The son that did the shootings was sick. Try to remember your real son, the one you had the good times with,” said Schneider.

Suspected mosque arson won’t scare Muslims, leader says photo

Ruiz said the fire “could also have something to do with it happening on the 15th anniversary of Sept. 11. Or the Muslim holiday (Eid al-Adha). We just don’t know. There are so many factors. We do know Islamophobia is real. People are willing to commit hate crimes to express their hatred.”

Reporters stood behind yellow police tape Monday during the 30-minute press conference outside the front door of the Fort Pierce Islamic Center. A young man drove by during the press conference, rolled down his window and yelled an expletive before driving off.

“This is terrorism. We expect nothing less than federal, state and local to extend their fullest efforts to capture the terrorists who did this and punish them to the fullest extent of the law,” Ruiz said.

Staff writer Chelsea Todaro contributed to this article.

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