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Person detained in fire at Coachella mosque; concern over shooting backlash mounts

A fire Friday at a mosque appears to have been intentionally set, authorities say, and has prompted condemnations and alarm in this Riverside County community and beyond.

The fire at the Islamic Society of the Coachella Valley mosque is one of several incidents over the past week that officials are investigating as possible backlashes to the San Bernardino terrorist shootings.

Late Friday, authorities said they had detained someone but released no additional details.

A person of interest was identified, located and detained, pending further investigation, the sheriff's department said in a statement.

Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, who visited the mosque Friday night, said he was alarmed that the mosque may have been targeted for religious reasons.

“It's horribly lamentable that we would paint any group as undesirables based on the actions of an extremely small number of radical folks that don't represent the religion in any way,” he said.

“If in fact it was done with the mosque as a target ... it's reprehensible, and the people who perpetrated that act should be treated the way we would any other terrorist.”

Last year, a shot was fired into the same mosque; no one was hurt. That incident was investigated as a possible hate crime.

The fire was reported at 12:09 p.m. Friday inside the mosque in the 84600 block of Avenue 49 in Coachella, said Jennifer Fuhrman, a spokeswoman for the Riverside County Fire Department.

The Sheriff's Department “believes this is an intentional act and we are using all available resources to follow up on any leads that are brought to our attention,” Deputy Armando Munoz, a department spokesman, said in a statement Friday evening. “Cal Fire and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting us with this investigation.”

The fire started about 15 minutes before an afternoon prayer service. Salahaldeen Alwishah, 27, of Indio said several worshipers were inside the mosque when firetrucks and sheriff’s vehicles descended on the building.

In a telephone interview, Alwishah said he believed “it was the will of God” that more people weren’t inside when the flames erupted.

“We were just here trying to be free and practice our religion just like everybody else,” he said.

The mosque’s congregation is a diverse group, made up of people from several countries and economic backgrounds, said Alwishah, who added that worshipers had a “feeling of devastation” after the incident.

Firefighters were able to contain the blaze to the lobby, but smoke caused damage throughout the 1,800-square-foot mosque. No one was injured.

On Friday evening, several sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement officials were gathered near the charred frame of the mosque’s entryway. A window also appeared to have been blown out.

Details about the cause of the fire were not immediately available. Ojaala Ahmad, communications coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles, said the group has been in touch with FBI officials.

While the cause of the fire remains unknown, Ahmad said the mere thought of a blaze at a mosque is cause for concern after a spate of anti-Islamic incidents in California and elsewhere after the Dec. 2 San Bernardino shootings. Authorities say a couple who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State terror figures opened fire at a holiday party, killing 14.

CAIR’s offices in Santa Clara and Washington, D.C., were evacuated Thursday after each building received a threatening letter containing a powdery substance, Ahmad said. While it was later determined that the substances were not dangerous, the FBI is now investigating both incidents, CAIR said in a statement. A caretaker at a Philadelphia mosque found a pig’s head on the doorstep of the building earlier this week, also sparking a police investigation.

A vandal scrawled the word “ISIS” on a truck outside an Orange County Sikh temple just days after the shootings. The Sikh community is sometimes targeted in anti-Islamic attacks because people mistake members’ dress and grooming for that of Muslims.

Buena Park police have arrested Brodie Durazo, 20, on suspicion of vandalism at a place of worship. Prosecutors will determine whether to file hate-crime charges against him.

“Obviously it’s really upsetting, and it’s very unfortunate. In this case, in Coachella, we don’t know the motive behind it yet,” Ahmad said. “It just comes to show how real 'Islamaphobia' is, how scary and how threatening it can become, and how dangerous Islamaphobia is to our nation and fellow Americans.”

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

james.queally@latimes.com

Esquivel reported from Coachella, Queally from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Veronica Rocha, Sarah Parvini, Richard Winton, Brittny Mejia and Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

For breaking news in California, follow @palomaesquivel @VeronicaRochaLA  and @JamesQueallyLAT on Twitter.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

11:12 p.m.: This article was updated with information on a suspect in custody.

9:04 p.m.: This article was updated with minor editing.

7:23 p.m.: This article has been updated with authorities saying the fire was intentionally set.

7:03 p.m.: This article has been updated with the Riverside Sheriff's Department saying the fire is believed to have been intentionally set.

6:11 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from witnesses and local officials.

5:15 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles.

2:20 p.m.: This article was updated with details from the FBI and with additional background information.

This article was originally published at 1:30 p.m.

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