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Police Searching For Arsonist Suspected Of Setting Fire To Escondido Mosque

The Islamic Center of Escondido appears in this undated photo before fire was...

Credit: Islamic Center of Escondido

Above: The Islamic Center of Escondido appears in this undated photo before fire was set to the building on Sunday, March 24, 2019.

GUEST: Claire Trageser, investigative reporter, KPBS News

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An Escondido mosque was set on fire and defaced with graffiti referencing deadly attacks at two mosques in New Zealand early Sunday morning, and police are investigating the attack as both arson and a hate crime.

The fire was reported around 3 a.m. Sunday at the Islamic Center of Escondido on West Sixth Avenue near South Escondido Boulevard, according to Escondido Police Lt. Chris Lick.

Seven people were inside the building when they noticed a fire had broken out on the outer walls of the mosque, Lick said. They were able to get the blaze out with a fire extinguisher and called 911.

No one was injured and the fire caused only minor damage to the outside of the building, Lick said.

Lick said an accelerant was used to set the blaze, and that he would not release the contents of the graffiti.

Escondido Police and Fire Department Arson investigators, along with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Bomb/Arson Unit responded to assist with the investigation, he said. Agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are also assisting with the investigation.

There were no suspects identified and there were no new updates about the investigation late Monday, Lick said. He said uniformed officers are providing additional patrols in the area of the mosque.

RELATED: San Diego US Attorney Discusses Rise In Reported Hate Crimes

Dustin Craun, the executive director for CAIR San Diego, said people were doing a spiritual retreat in the mosque on the night of the fire, so they were present when the fire was started.

"That's the reason they were able to put out the fire because they were there," Craun said.

He said the mosque remains open on Monday, and that there was an interfaith prayer vigil held Sunday night. A fundraising campaign was also set up for repairs.

Craun said with the approach of Ramadan in May, he will be working with mosques throughout the county to "make sure everyone feels protected and has security plans in place."

While authorities continue to investigate whether the fire was a hate crime, Craun blamed it on white supremacy.

"This is what happens when you have two decades of Islamophobia unchallenged even by progressive liberals, when there's continued language of hatred coming from the president," he said. "White supremacy kills over and over again, whether it's at a mosque, a church, or a synagogue. How many more times does this have to happen to do something about white supremacy?"

Across the county in 2017, hate crimes increased by 15 percent from the year before, according to FBI data. That mirrors the nationwide trend, where hate crimes increased by 17 percent between 2016 and 2017.

Members of the public are encouraged to call Escondido police to report suspicious activity in the area of the mosque, Lick said.

Anyone with information about the fire was asked to call the police department at (760) 839-4722 or the anonymous tip line at (760) 743-8477.

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