400 attend prayer rally at destroyed mosque (w/video)

Jon Wilcox By Jon Wilcox

Jan. 29, 2017 at 11:15 p.m.
Updated Jan. 29, 2017 at 11:23 p.m.

Julie Kutac, 37, of Houston, hugs Sarina Vasquez, Imam Osama Hassan's wife, after a community service held outside the Victoria Islamic Center. Kutac said she attended the service to show solidarity and love of community. The service began with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Julie Kutac, 37, of Houston, hugs Sarina Vasquez, Imam Osama Hassan's wife, after a community service held outside the Victoria Islamic Center. Kutac said she attended the service to show solidarity and love of community. The service began with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.   Angela Piazza for The Victoria Advocate

Amid international media attention, hundreds of supporters prayed and communed Sunday morning at the burned ruins of the Victoria Islamic Center in a show of community solidarity.

"Look at Victoria and learn the lesson ... as to how people can come together as one human family," said M.J. Khan, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, as he stood before the gathered crowd.

Religious leaders of varying faiths and backgrounds led an emotional crowd as fire investigators worked behind yellow crime scene tape in the mosque's broken rubble. Police, who blocked off Airline Road for the service, estimated that 400 people attended.

The Victoria Islamic Center was gutted by fire in the pre-dawn hours Saturday.

In the face of that calamity, overwhelming support from Victoria and beyond has poured over the mosque's members, said Shahid Hashmi, president and a founding member of the Victoria Islamic Center.

A gofundme.com page set up to raise funds to rebuild the mosque demonstrated the overwhelming goodwill from supporters in Victoria, the state of Texas, the U.S. and beyond. As of 10:45 p.m. Sunday, the page had raised more than $780,000 since its creation the previous day.

Victoria Fire Marshal Tom Legler said investigators have yet to determine the fire's cause or origin.

The investigation could take "many, many" months, said Victoria Fire Chief Taner Drake.

Saturday, investigators were delayed by the building's decaying structural integrity, Drake said. They waited for the arrival of heavy machinery to peel back parts of the crumbling building to allow investigators to work safely.

A State Fire Marshal's Office K9 assisted the investigators by sniffing for a wide spectrum of chemicals, including flammable liquids, Legler said. Forensic samples were taken - a common occurrence in most fire investigations - and were sent for testing to the State Fire Marshal's Forensic Arson Laboratory in Austin, Legler said.

Hundreds of photographs, measurements and documentation also have been taken, he said. Hashmi said security camera footage from within the mosque has been turned over to authorities.

Testing of samples is completed in the order in which they are received, Drake said.

"Nobody is a priority. You get in line to get your stuff tested," he said.

Although Drake announced Saturday morning the fire's intensity prompted defensive strategies, that is no indication of what caused the blaze, he said. The fire could have burned for hours inside without detection, increasing in intensity until someone noticed, he said.

Additionally, the building's brick facade does not mean the building could not have burned easily.

"The framework is not brick. It's wood," Legler said. "That's what burns."

Legler said he anticipated finishing the investigation's initial evidence-gathering stage Sunday night, at which time he hoped to turn the property back over to congregation members.

City, state and federal investigators will work together to interpret that evidence and build a case, Legler said.

As the process continues, Legler asked for the public to not rush to judgments.

"Investigating fires is really, really tough," Drake said.

With authorities in the early stages of their investigation, mosque member Abe Ajrami asked Victoria to avoid jumping to conclusions and politicizing the tragedy.

"It's not about Democrat vs. Republican, black vs. white, Muslim vs. Christian," Ajrami said. "It's not because you look at the response we have gotten. It's every color, every nationality, every religion, every political affiliation."

The ceremony opened with the crowd reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as an American flag fluttered in the breeze next to a sign that read, "United We Stand."

Ajrami praised city, state and federal fire investigators, thanking them for their work and asked the public to wait on their results.

"We are praying that it is an accident because the thought of actually somebody doing something terrible like that is beyond imagination," he said.

Speaking publicly for the second time since the mosque's destruction, Ajrami recounted the anguish he and other congregation members have experienced. Ajrami and a handful of others from the mosque were present as the fire raged, tearfully watching from a curb across the street, their faces illuminated by flames in the morning darkness.

That tragedy was heightened, Hashmi said said, because of the many pleasant memories made with friends and family there since its construction in 2000.

"You nurture a child. You watch that child grow ... but one day, God takes that child away from you," he said. "This place is like one of my children."

Mosque member Yazen Hamoudah, 17, told the crowd how he had come to love the mosque during his upbringing. For him and others, he said, the building had become more than a place of worship. Hours before the fire erupted at the mosque, Hamoudah and other members shared dinner and company at their Friday potluck. The teen said he remembered having some fun attempting the "water bottle flip challenge," a game recently popularized on the internet.

"It was our second home," Hamoudah said.

Victoria religious leaders shared Hamoudah and other members' lament for the loss of that home, expressing empathy through prayer and encouragement.

Pastor Dan Fultz, of Grace Presbyterian Church, led the group in prayer with an inclusive introduction: "Loving God, God of Abraham, God of Moses and Jesus and Muhammad, God of every living, breathing person, we give you thanks."

When Mark Perez, a board trustee for Victoria's Unitarian Universalist Church, addressed the crowd, he praised the mosque for its benefit to the community.

"This place of worship is a place of unity and love," he said.

Gary Branfman, a member of Temple B'nai Israel, told the audience although the fire had destroyed, it had also unified Victoria - a fact apparent by the size of the crowd.

"Whether this was a kitchen fire, short circuit or a psychopath, the result of the spark is not what stands behind me," Branfman said, referring to the burned mosque. "It's what stands before me."

The ceremony was closed by Victoria resident Lanell Mantey, who read a letter by the Rev. Bill Hassel, of Communities of Faith, a Victoria interfaith group that began promoting unity among different faiths and backgrounds in 2016 after Dallas police officers were fatally shot. According to Hassel's letter, the formative meeting for communities of faith was held at the Victoria Islamic Center.

"It was a beacon on a hill that called its members to worship Allah, a place of beauty and love that represents the Islamic people," said Mantey, reading Hassel's letter. "It is our hope that you can rebuild on this place as soon as possible."

For complete coverage of the fire visit our Special Projects page at www.victoriaadvocate.com/mosquefire.


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