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I Islamophobia

Fort Pierce mosque rebuilds after fire, Pulse tragedy

By Bethany Rodgers, For Orlando Sentinel, On 28 September 2016, Read Original
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FORT PIERCE — As ceiling fans churned muggy August air through the mosque where Pulse shooter Omar Mateen once touched his forehead to the carpet in prayer, assistant imam Adel Nefzi preached that a sincere follower of God harms none.

He thundered that no man should fear the hand or tongue of a true Muslim.

It had been two months since Mateen walked into an Orlando nightclub and opened fire on a roomful of dancers, killing 49. And before the prayer service began and worshippers were still trickling into the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, Nefzi pondered the weighty task ahead of him.

"It's a heavy responsibility to speak about religion," said Nefzi, 53. "You are always afraid that people, they did not understand the right message."

Since Mateen's attack on Pulse nightclub, many in this congregation of roughly 100 have felt their message of peace drowned out in the violence that claimed 49 lives and the backlash that blames them for the slaughter.

First came the bile-filled phone calls and a group of motorcyclists who drove in circles around the center. In July, a worshipper was battered bloody in the mosque parking lot. The attacker reportedly shouted Islamophobic comments before punching the victim hard enough to dislodge a tooth.

Then, a week ago — the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — a motorcyclist pulled up to the center, poured accelerant on the door and set the building ablaze in what Muslim advocates are calling Florida's worst-ever mosque attack.

"What do you think the community should expect next, if each incident in each month … has not only been recurrent, but getting worse?" asked Wilfredo Ruiz of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Florida.

Ruiz said many Fort Pierce residents have rallied around the mosque, a fixture in the city of 45,000 along the Atlantic coast 120 miles southeast of Orlando. Muslims have gathered at the center, where the imam is one of the area's prominent physicians, for about two decades now.

However, this isn't the first time mosque regulars have felt suspicion hover over their congregation. Another former attendee, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, became known as the first American suicide bomber in Syria after driving a truck packed with explosives into a restaurant in 2014.

Those who pray at the mosque say they, like anyone, were appalled that Abusalha, 22, and Mateen, 29, had ties to their community.

"I can understand people's frustration with two people coming out of this area having committed such horrendous acts," Port St. Lucie entrepreneur Mohammad Malik said. "The thing is that these two radicalized individually, and it wasn't done through the mosque."

Neighborhood residents consider the mosque structure something of a historic landmark, with parts dating back to the early 20th century. Except for the Arabic script on the sign and crescent moon above the front doors, the peach building still looks like the Presbyterian church that it once was.

Ruiz has suggested that if it were still a Christian place of worship, its burning would have stirred greater outrage, according to a CNN report.

But he said his group applauds the law-enforcement investigation that culminated last week with the arrest of 32-year-old Joseph Schreiber of Port St. Lucie. Schreiber, whose Facebook page was full of anti-Islamic ranting, was charged with a hate crime.

Meanwhile, the mosque community is still taking stock of the damage.

The center posted an online album of photos from inside the charred building, showing the peeling walls, the drifts of ash covering the ground, the gaping holes in the ceiling. Wisps of smoke blackened a bulletin board where the imam had pinned notes of support and solidarity sent to the mosque since the Pulse shooting.

The cost of repairs is estimated to exceed $100,000. By Friday morning, an online fundraising drive for the project had already collected more than $31,000, and Ruiz said mosque regulars are determined to bounce back.

Before the fire, as Nefzi gave his Friday afternoon message last month, a dozen or so women listened from the female section, separated from the men by a perforated partition.

Speakers piped in Nefzi's voice while women leaned against the wall, legs tucked under them. Allah was watching them, Nefzi said. All of their hidden deeds would come to light on the day of judgment.

For more than an hour, Nefzi's words tumbled down onto the gathering. But for his female listeners, paying attention the entire time proved too difficult. There were arriving friends to embrace and a baby on a fuzzy blanket to coo over.

Sarah Zaidi, who grew up visiting the mosque, said she loves the feeling of community. The women who host potlucks and or one-dish parties at their homes.

Since fire ravaged the place she once worshipped, Zaidi, 28, has been defending the mosque on social media and rallying people to donate. Though hate grabs headlines, there has also been an outpouring of goodwill from both Muslims and non-Muslims, she said.

"We're going to stand as one," she said. "The point is that we have freedom of religion, and we will keep rebuilding as much as we have to, because that's our right."

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