Arson investigators were trying to determine Friday whether a fire that destroyed one of three buildings at an Islamic center here was intentionally set.
No one was injured in the blaze that erupted before 6:15 a.m. prayers Friday in a storage area of the Quba Islamic Institute mosque and school, located in a residential neighborhood on Houston's southeast side.
About 25 firefighters responded and extinguished the fire within an hour, according to Kenyatta Parker, a spokesman for Houston Fire Department, who said arson investigators were still trying to determine the cause of the fire late Friday. Institute officials said investigators told them the fire was intentionally set.
"Preliminary investigation has concluded that the fire was started by a person. Who it was is unknown at this time. But the investigators have made clear that the fire was not accidental," they posted on the institute's Facebook page.
Worshipers said the fire was particularly troubling after an attack in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Tuesday that left three Muslims dead.
"A lot of people have the feeling that perhaps the mentality is the same," said Ahsan Zahid, son of the institute's imam, as they stood outside the charred building on Friday wearing shalwar kameez, Middle Eastern tunics and pants.
Stephen Hicks, 46, of Chapel Hill faces three counts of first-degree murder in connection with the Tuesday shooting of newlyweds Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad, 21, along with her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. The shooting is being investigated as a possible hate crime.
Houston has grown increasingly diverse as it expanded during the past decade to become the fourth-largest city in the U.S., home to the state's largest Muslim community of at least 57,000 and 22 Islamic centers and mosques, according to the Texas State Historical Assn.
Texas has the eighth largest Muslim population in the country, more than 420,000, according to the association, and ranked third in the country for the state with the most mosques — 166 — after New York and California, according to a 2011 study.
But that has not led to increased inclusiveness, according to Zahid, 25, who was born in Saudi Arabia but has lived in the U.S. since he was 5 years old.
Four years ago, another Muslim center in southwest Houston was attacked by arsonists who were caught on surveillance video but never charged.
Last month, the annual Texas Muslim Capitol Day in Austin was disrupted by protesters who shouted "Islam is a lie" and "No sharia here," a reference to Islamic law. Republican State Rep. Molly White also stirred controversy by leaving instructions for staff to "ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws," according to a Facebook post.
Zahid and others at the fire scene Friday cited examples of increased "Islamophobia."
Last week, he said a young woman wearing a head scarf was accosted by a passing driver, who told her to go to North Carolina because "they know how to take care of you people."
A few days ago, Zahid and his father noticed a suspicious man lurking around the institute with his face covered, but he ran off before they could question him.
On Thursday night, a man in a pickup truck drove past the institute, mimicking Arabic and mocking those who had gathered for evening prayers.
On Friday, they noticed critical comments posted on the institute's Facebook page.
"We're seen as outsiders," Zahid said as he fielded calls from worried Muslim friends in Georgia, Oregon and North Carolina.
The Islamic center sits at the edge of a strip mall that includes everything from an Indian restaurant to a newspaper, liquor store and Christian church. Neighbors at the other businesses stopped by to inspect the damage and to offer support, as did others on Facebook.
By afternoon, worshipers had returned for prayers. Zahid headed inside, saying that even if the fire was intentionally set, he doesn't hate the culprit — he just hopes to raise awareness about the Muslim community in America.
"People can change," he said. "So you pick up the pieces and move on."