An arsonist set a fire that blackened the walls of an Escondido mosque early Sunday and left a note on the house of worship’s driveway referencing a shooting rampage at two New Zealand mosques that left dozens dead, investigators said.
There were seven people inside the Islamic Center of Escondido on West 6th Avenue when the incident occurred about 3:15 a.m., Escondido Police Lt. Chris Lick said. One person who was awake at the time spotted the flames, and the group managed to put out the fire before it caused any serious damage.
Officers and firefighters arrived soon after and quickly determined the fire was intentionally set. Lick said an accelerant was used to set the blaze, but he did not elaborate. No information on suspects was available.
Lick said investigators found a note on the driveway of the mosque that referred to the March 15 shootings at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in New Zealand that left 50 people dead.
A morning prayer at the center was canceled while a team of law enforcement agencies investigated.
Escondido police and fire investigators, a regional bomb/arson task force and agents with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the incident as an arson and a hate crime.
“Everyone should remain absolutely vigilant and watchful at their prayer centers,” Lick said. “If there are people who are not supposed to be there, please give us a call.”
Yusef Miller, a spokesman for the Islamic community in Escondido, echoed those sentiments, encouraging other mosques across the county to remain vigilant.
“Everyone is on edge here today,” Miller said. “When they connected it to New Zealand, it gave us a more real fear that something outlandish might happen.”
A prayer and security vigil were scheduled to be held at the mosque from 8 to 9 p.m. Sunday night to show support and protect those who wished to participate in evening prayer.
Dustin Craun, the executive director of the San Diego office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who will participate in the vigil, condemned the fire and called for stepped-up security and police protection at Islamic institutions.
“It is disturbing enough that some sick individual would attempt to burn a house of worship to the ground, but referencing the slayings in New Zealand is beyond the pale,” Craun said in a statement. “While the majority of humanity has responded to the tragedy to draw closer to one another and refute hatred, a violent and hate-filled minority seeks further divisions.”
Lick said officers planned to keep a close eye on worship centers in the area. He encouraged members of the public to report any suspicious activity near religious centers.