By Zach Murdock
The Hartford Courant
A two-alarm fire that heavily damaged a New Haven mosque over the weekend was intentionally set and a federal criminal investigation is underway, local and state officials said Monday afternoon.
“This was intentionally set,” New Haven Fire Chief John Alston said. “Any time there’s an event like this in a house of worship, anywhere in the United States, it triggers a response of both the ATF, the FBI and state and local authorities. That has happened.”
The fire just before 4 p.m. Sunday at the Diayanet Mosque on Middle Avenue rendered the building uninhabitable at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, which includes daily fasting from dawn to sunset and ends with the major holiday Eid al-Fitr.
Officials would not release more details about why they believe the fire was intentional, citing the ongoing investigation.
New Haven, state and federal investigators held one of their last meetings at the scene in the rain Monday afternoon to share all of the current evidence gathered so far, Alston said during a news conference with those officials.
“We are going to continue the investigation as it moves from now a fire emergency to a criminal investigation,” Alston said.
No one was injured during the fire, but it did “significant damage to the portion of the building that was being constructed” on the first and second floors, said Rick Fontana, director of New Haven’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.
Artifacts from the building were salvaged and given to the mosque’s imam for safekeeping, officials said. Mosque leaders said Monday they were relieved no one was injured and that the investigation already is progressing.
Investigators are offering a $2,500 reward for information related to the arson, interim police Chief Otoniel Reyes said.
New Haven and state officials also will work with other houses of worship across the area to further protect their properties, officials said.
“To the community at large and every other house of worship, we are taking this very serious,” Reyes said. “We are working with our federal and state partners to make sure there is no underlying issue to the greater religious community.”
Last month, the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford received a racist, violent threat to burn down its temple just after shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killed dozens.
Arson and violence have erupted at other places of worship over the past two months around the country, stoking concerns about spreading hate crimes. Fires destroyed three historically black churches in Louisiana and two more incidents occurred in the San Diego-area, where one mosque damaged by a fire and one person was killed in a shooting at a synagogue.
“Given recent attacks on houses of worship in this country and around the world, it is incumbent on law enforcement authorities to investigate the possibility of a bias motive for this arson,” said Tark Aouadi, executive director for the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Gov. Ned Lamont condemned the New Haven fire as a “hateful” attack.
“I find an attack like this is especially hurtful and hateful when you attack an institution for what people believe and you attack a religious house of worship,” Lamont said outside the mosque Monday afternoon. “The one thing I find hopeful, as I heard from the imam, is that other houses of worship, churches and synagogues, have stepped forward and said, ‘We want to help.’
“What I heard here from the folks at this mosque is they welcome the help, but they want to worship right here in this place, and we’re going to do everything we can to make that possible.”
(Courant Staff writers Christine Dempsey and Steven Goode contributed to this report.)
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