In many ways, the announcement by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that the blaze that destroyed a mosque in Victoria felt like the other shoe had dropped.
Surely, there could be a benign explanation behind the fire, which occurred hours after President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring travel and immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Faulty wiring. Careless disposal of ashes.
But on Wednesday, the feds declared the cause of the January 28 blaze at the Victoria Islamic Center mosque to be arson. The agency is offering $30,000 for information leading to the people responsible. Agents have yet to detail what led them to believe the fire was intentionally set.
The ATF, which worked with state and local agencies to investigate the fire, said agents have yet to find evidence that the fire was a "biased crime," but noted the significance of the destruction of a religious building.
"Houses of worship are a sacred place in this country, and ATF is committed to devoting the necessary resources to solving this crime," Fred Milanowski, the special agent in charge of the ATF's Houston field division, said in a statement. "We...ask that anyone with information about this incident please report it."
Victoria Fire Chief Taner Drake added, "Investigators are working feverishly to follow all leads that will lead to the arrest of the person(s) responsible."
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the Victoria Islamic Center said members initially suspected the fire was no accident, but prayed the investigation would prove otherwise. The statement said parishioners were "saddened and alarmed" but the ATF's announcement, and urged the arsonist to surrender to police.
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The mosque noted the long history of discrimination members of their faith have faced in the United States, and pledged to rebuild their mosque.
"American Muslims have suffered from, and advocated against, stereotyping and bigotry. We have always asked that we not be painted with a broad brush because of the evil acts of few individuals claiming to be Muslims. Therefore, it would be hypocritical of us to point the blame on any group of people based on assumptions and stereotype. Our Islamic faith calls upon us to not judge others, let alone base such judgement on assumptions and suspicion. Therefore, our message of unity, of hope, and inclusiveness will continue."
The fire completely destroyed the mosque and caused about $500,000 in damage.
The feds urge anyone with information about the crime to call the feds at 888-283-3474.