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Desert Mosque Burns to Ground

San Bernardino County officials suspect arson or a hate crime. Federal investigators called in.

June 04, 2005|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

A suspicious fire gutted a mosque early Friday in the high desert city of Adelanto, the site of Southern California's only cemetery built exclusively for Muslims.

San Bernardino County arson investigators who inspected the ruins of the United Islamic Youth Organization mosque believe that the blaze was possibly arson or a hate crime, authorities said.

"We can't rule that out until we look at everything," said San Bernardino County Fire Department spokeswoman Tracey Martinez, who added that federal investigators had been summoned to the scene, accessible by a dirt road east of Highway 395.

The fire was labeled suspicious because the 1,500-square-foot mosque on Morning Glory Street did not have electric or gas service, ruling out an electrical fire or a gas leak as possible causes. Power was provided by a portable generator that was not on the premises, Martinez said.

A truck driver on Highway 395 reported the blaze at 4:24 a.m. Friday. Firefighters arrived 20 minutes later to find the mosque "fully involved," Martinez said. Only two of the mosque's gray stucco walls remained standing. Korans and prayer rugs were among the items lost in the fire, said Seyed Mousavi, a board member of the mosque.

Mousavi said he wanted answers: "The only thing we're afraid of is that someone who doesn't like Muslims found out this is the only Islamic cemetery in the U.S."

He said the mosque served as a spiritual center for visitors who came to bury relatives and friends in the cemetery of 600 graves, all facing northeast toward Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, according to Islamic custom. The cemetery had drawn burial requests from Muslims as far away as Chicago and had a reserved waiting list of 1,000 people, he said.

"The significance of that cemetery is great to Muslims in Southern California, and if this is arson, that's a big insult to our community," said Mustafa Kuko, director of the Islamic Center of Riverside. "The Muslim looks at the mosque as a home. They don't have all the clues yet, but it's like someone has burned down one of our homes."

The mosque and cemetery were built by Zaid Assfy, who died in 2000. He opened the cemetery to Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Gatherings for families and religious celebrations, such as Eid al Fitr, the day after Ramadan, drew visitors to the mosque, but Friday prayers were not scheduled there, Mousavi said.

"No one has condemned us. As far as I know, there are no problems with our community," Mousavi said.

A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Orange County urged a thorough investigation.

"We're extremely concerned about this, and we want law enforcement to take proactive steps in bringing possible perpetrators to justice," spokesman Ra'id Faraj said. "If this is arson or a hate crime, events like this scare the community."

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