TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — An intentionally set fire damaged a prayer hall at a Tampa-area mosque early Friday, investigators said.
The arson occurred at the Islamic Society of New Tampa, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue said in a news release.
Fire investigators responded at around 2 a.m. After gathering evidence, they determined the fire was intentionally set. No one was at the mosque when the fire started.
"It is worrisome that our community has fallen victim of what appears to be another hate crime," said Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida.
An alarm company notified a mosque board member early Friday, and he found first responders there when he arrived, CAIR said.
Investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives also responded, the group said. The ATF confirmed its agents were there but said the local fire department was leading the investigation.
CAIR said the fire started at a door to the prayer hall. There was damage to the door and carpet inside from sprinkler water and smoke.
Authorities said there were holes found in the door, but determined they were not made by bullets, as some had initially feared.
Morning prayers were moved to another building. Afternoon prayers may be cancelled due to the damage to the hall, local news media reported.
Worshippers were directed to other mosques in the area until the building is repaired.
The blaze was at least the second intentionally set fire at a Florida mosque in the past year. Joseph Schreiber was sentenced to 30 years in prison earlier this month for setting fire to the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce on Sept. 11. It was the same mosque that the Orlando nightclub shooter attended occasionally.
Mustafa Ameen, the Islamic Society of New Tampa's lawyer and spokesman, said this is the first time a fire has been intentionally set at the mosque. He said they're awaiting the outcome of the investigation to better understand the motive, but have been boosted by community support.
"We appreciate the entire community standing in solidarity with us," he said.