Columbia Police Chief Barry Crotzer said one of his officers had driven by the mosque around 3 a.m. Saturday and had seen nothing out of the ordinary. But when firefighters arrived at the Islamic Center of Columbia around 5:30 a.m., they found it ablaze and discovered hate slogans on the side of the building.
“One said, ‘White Power,’ the other said, ‘We run the world,’ ” said Randy Thysse, assistant special agent in charge of the Memphis office of the FBI.
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Agents from the FBI and the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are working with local police and fire departments to investigate the fire.
“It looks pretty obvious that it was arson,” said Jim Cavanaugh of the ATF. Cavanaugh said investigators would continue working today to confirm the fire as arson.
Group is diverse
The mosque was housed in a former electronics repair shop at 1317 S. Main St. in Columbia, a Maury County city about 45 miles south of Nashville.
Daoud Abudiab, president of the Islamic Center, said the congregation was too small to have an imam, with only 10 or 15 people gathering for Friday prayer services.
Despite its size, the congregation is diverse, with members from the Middle East, India, Iraq and Egypt, plus several American converts. Abudiab said they’d gotten along well with neighbors since buying the building eight years ago.
Mosque members including Rami Awad rushed to the scene early Saturday after receiving word their house of worship was burning. Awad said he couldn’t believe someone would deliberately destroy the mosque. For Awad, who said he grew up in Bethlehem in Israel and came to the U.S. 12 years ago, it seemed like a scene out of the Middle East.
“We never expected this in America,” he said.
Abudiab said the mosque had insurance, but it was too early to know whether the mosque would rebuild or not. He said the hardest part of this experience came when his young son asked what the “White Power” graffiti meant.
“It’s not an easy thing for an adult to have to explain to a child,” he said.