Destroyed by flames of prejudice, the Victoria Islamic Center was rebuilt with unity.
“We’re all one human family. That’s the most important thing to remember,” said Sister Clare Underbrink, a Victoria Catholic.
Almost two years after a Victoria man set fire and destroyed the mosque, hundreds of supporters from Victoria, Texas and elsewhere gathered to participate in a grand opening ceremony filled with meaning and emotion. During a Saturday night ceremony, thankfulness and celebration resounded as mosque members thanked those who supported them with donations and encouragement.
Afterward, mosque members took the audience on guided tours through the completed building. Inside, visitors couldn’t help but remark at the beauty of the white marble walls, high ceilings, plush carpeting, sparkling chandeliers and intricate metalwork.
“It was beautiful,” said Underbrink.
More than 25,000 donors from Victoria, the U.S. and more than 90 countries gave more than $1.1 million in donations through a Gofundme.com fundraising campaign.
For mosque member Abe Ajrami, the day wasn’t about the completed brick and mortar structure. Rather, he said during a speech, it was about recognizing the community members who came together to see the place of worship rebuilt.
“Victorians transformed their city and the mosque arson into a bright star in the dark sky,” Ajrami said. “So, thank you.”
It was about a Victoria Episcopal pastor who canceled his Sunday service and instead took his congregation to a prayer vigil at the burned mosque the morning after its destruction, Ajrami said.
It was a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent who worked tirelessly for days to find the man responsible for the fire and bring him to justice, he said.
That agent’s investigation ultimately resulted in guilty convictions for Victoria resident Marq Vincent Perez, 26, who will be sentenced Tuesday for federal arson and a hate crime charge.
It was about the Victoria architect and Christian who studied Islamic architecture and the faith itself to build a structure worthy of replacing the original structure, Ajrami said.
But most of all, it was about all of the Victoria community members who championed empathy and understanding despite all their differences.
“When fire is blazing in your neighbor’s house, you don’t think about the theological differences,” Ajrami said.
Sheikh Burhan Fili, a retired 69-year-old Albanian teacher and friend of the congregation who spoke at the ceremony, said news of the arson and Victoria’s rallying even had reached his home country.
His countrymen, like the others throughout the world, he said, were moved by the actions of the Victoria community, which was publicized internationally through numerous news channels and publications.
“The whole world knows about this,” he said.
And while many in the world community may have been impressed with the money raised to rebuild, they were most amazed by the manner in which Victoria came together.
“It’s not how much,” he said. “It’s how it was done.”