Some Victoria Muslims are convinced the 26-year-old convicted of burning down their mosque would never have done so had he simply gotten to know them.

“I can 100 percent say he wouldn’t have. I’m confident he wouldn’t,” said Abe Ajrami, a Victoria business owner and treasurer for the Victoria Islamic Center, the city’s only mosque.

Flashing a simple smile, sharing a moment of pleasant conversation or providing a helping hand to those in need are the building blocks for a stronger community, Ajrami said. And through those simple interactions, however insignificant they may seem, some Victoria Muslims hope to move past the divisiveness and misunderstanding that led Marq Vincent Perez to set fire to the Victoria Islamic Center on Jan. 27, 2017.

During his weeklong trial, a Victoria teenager who admitted to witnessing the man set the mosque ablaze testified that Perez had, in fact, never met a member of the mosque. The first time he set foot inside the building was to burglarize it days before he burned it to the ground. Jurors convicted him of a hate crime among other charges after prosecutors presented evidence and testimony that revealed Perez held animosity against Muslims.

But members of the Victoria Islamic Center are taking real steps to break down barriers, in part, by serving their community.

On June 2, about 30 members served Mumphord’s barbecue lunches to about 150 in-need people at Christ’s Kitchen, a Victoria nonprofit that has fed the hungry for more than 30 years.

Occurring during Ramadan, an Islamic holy month when charities are encouraged, the event served a purpose more than simply feeding the hungry. It also introduced them and their faith to those who had previously few interactions with Muslims.

Islamic center members served that food as they fasted themselves for the monthlong holiday.

“They are great people. I mean look at what they are doing today. They don’t have to do this,” said a Victoria Christian while he enjoyed a plate of the barbecue.

Trish Hastings, executive director at Christ’s Kitchen, said she met the mosque’s imam, Osama Hassan, when the man previously visited to help serve food.

Although Hastings, who is a Christian, said she has not taken the time to study the Quran, she has had the opportunity to meet Victoria Muslims such as Hassan. And the personal interaction they shared, she said, has convinced her that the man is a “lovely” person.

“I know him. I like him. I care about him as a human being,” she said.

When it comes to tackling challenges faced within the Victoria community and the “human family,” looking past differences and celebrating commonalities is a powerful tool, Ajrami said.

The reconstruction of their uninsured mosque more than a year after its destruction by arson is one shining example, he said, pointing to the thousands of Gofundme.com donations totaling more than $1.1 million that were received from people of different faiths, political affiliations, skin colors and nationalities.

“We can still be different,” he said.

An open house grand opening is scheduled for early September, and the building’s construction is set to finish Monday, Aug. 13.

Mosque members are also planning to resume the creation of a Victoria medical clinic to serve those in need whatever their backgrounds may be. That project was delayed by the arson.

“You try to cross the lines to other faiths and not worry about who the person is,” Ajrami said.

Hastings agreed.

“I don’t think we are going to solve anything until we recognize the commonalities,” she said. “If you are hungry, you are hungry. You don’t say ‘I’m a Christian, and I’m hungry.”

Jon Wilcox reports on courts for the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached jwilcox@vicad.com or 361-580-6515.

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Jon covers crime, public safety and the courts at the Victoria Advocate. Born in Huntsville, Ala., he grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism at Texas State University.

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