Muslims Feel Targeted at Mosque

Members of a Pomona religious center believe vandalism discovered this week was a hate crime. But police say they have no proof yet.

July 30, 2005|Andrew Wang | Times Staff Writer

As members of a Pomona mosque gathered for prayers Friday, they tried to make sense of vandalism at their religious center this week. Some Muslims suspect the incident was a hate crime, although police said it was too soon in the investigation to declare it so.

Imam Ridha Hajjar told about 50 people gathered for Friday prayers at the blockish, split-level building near the San Bernardino Freeway he was uncertain whether Ahlul-Beyt Mosque was the target of anti-Muslim sentiment. According to police, vandals broke into several classrooms and stole a 40-inch flat-screen television and a donation box and pay phone change box with unknown amounts of money.

"I'm not sure about their motivations," the imam said, speaking in English peppered with Arabic phrases. But "if it was robbery, then why the destruction?"

But others at the mosque, where worshipers are predominantly Shiite Muslims from Iraq, were certain the incident was a reaction by those who blame all Muslims for the recent bombings in London, the bombings of commuter trains in Madrid last year and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Prejudice and religious hatred are alive and well," said Nabil Shmara, 45, a civil engineer who lives in Anaheim Hills. "This is a normal or expected backlash."

"We are law-abiding people. Most of us came to this country for the opportunities for us and our children," Shmara said as he sat on the green-carpeted floor of the mosque's sanctuary for the noon prayer. "Those who did this to our mosque are the same as those who did the bombing in London.... They are also hurting innocent people."

Pomona police found no sign of forced entry nor any clear-cut evidence of a hate crime, but they have said that an unknown number of people may have had keys to the mosque. Police said the burglary was discovered Wednesday and could have taken place several days before that.

"It's still early in the investigation," said Sgt. Joe Waltman, who heads the detective bureau investigating the incident. Detectives are "investigating different avenues, different possibilities."

Vickie Hampton-Franklin, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Los Angeles office, said the bureau is aware of the incident and is "looking into it," but it's too soon to determine whether it was a hate crime.

In addition to damaging doors and stealing items, the intruders posted pornographic pictures on the mihrab, a prayer niche in the sanctuary that indicates the direction worshipers are to face, and arranged four chairs, a television and a stereo in the sanctuary as if they were having a party, said Sabih Al-Marayati, a mosque board member.

"They were taking their time," he said. "They were playing some music."

By Friday, Al-Marayati said, much of the mess in the sanctuary had been cleaned up in preparation for the regular nighttime prayer service.

In a classroom, Al-Marayati pointed to a whiteboard on which someone had scrawled "The Killers suck" and "MCR (My Chemical Romance)," both possible references to rock bands.

The frames of two classroom doors on the second floor were splintered and the door to a storage room on the first floor had a hole the size of a large watermelon. The door to a maintenance closet had been torn off its hinges, and a heating duct inside dislodged.

On June 3, a suspicious fire gutted a mosque in the high desert city of Adelanto, the site of Southern California's only cemetery exclusively for Muslims. San Bernardino County investigators who inspected the ruins of the United Islamic Youth Organization mosque suspect it was arson, authorities said. But no arrests have been made.

In his sermon at the Pomona mosque, Hajjar encouraged congregants by saying that many of them had survived persecution and they would easily get past this incident.

God, he said, "tells us to be patient. Good will prevail over evil. Inshallah." God willing.

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