TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn joined religious leaders Friday to deliver this message about anti-Muslim hatred: "It's not going to happen on my watch."
"As long as I'm the mayor of this community, we will never ever demonize anybody based on race or creed or color or ethnicity or the god you worship or who you love," Buckhorn said as onlookers applauded.
The mayor and interfaith leaders gathered at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay to express concern about a rise in anti-Muslim feelings here and nationally since the recent terrorists attacks in Paris and California.
The Rev. John Hillmer of Grace Lutheran Church in Tampa said he stood in solidarity with a diverse Tampa Bay.
"Sacred text after sacred text in all of our Scripture, but particularly the Old and New Testaments, speaks of embracing all," he said.
Behind him stood dozens of Muslim women and men showing their support.
Hassan Shibly, director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said before the news conference that two local Muslim women were recent targets of what CAIR fears could be hate crimes.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is investigating both incidents, but said those inquiries are still preliminary. Neither the mosque nor the Sheriff's Office identified the women.
Shibly said one woman fears that gunshots may have been fired at her car Thursday as she left a mosque.
"She was driving and felt the impact and thought maybe she hit a bump," Shibly said. Later, she found damage she thought came from a bullet.
Another woman said that over the weekend a man menaced her while she was driving to a mosque in New Tampa.
"It's too early to say it's a hate crime," said sheriff's spokeswoman Cristal Bermudez Nunez.
CAIR civil rights director Thania Diaz Clevenger said while it's possible these incidents won't fit the legal definition of a "hate crime" — where law enforcement has to know the perpetrator's motives — they can still be hate-related.
In the last two days, she said, she has received a total of four complaints from women in Hillsborough County who say they have been harassed while wearing hijabs, including the two complaints that the Sheriff's Office is now investigating.
The woman who said she found at least one bullet hole in her car first reported the incident to Tampa police, spokesman Steve Hegarty said. The Sheriff's Office took over the investigation after it was determined the incident took place in its jurisdiction.
Nunez said the woman told investigators she discovered the damage to her car after it went through a carwash. Deputies are still trying to identify the man involved in the other incident.
The woman in that incident told deputies she was stopped behind the man's Nissan Altima at a red light. He was throwing rocks out of his driver's side window, she said. The woman then pulled into the Islamic Society's parking lot. The Altima, according to the Sheriff's Office, pulled over nearby. The woman feared the man might be in distress, she said, so she yelled out to the driver.
The driver yelled back angrily, she said, so the woman got back into her car. As she was straightening out her vehicle, she said, the man backed up and accelerated toward her.
Clevenger said the man then tried to block her from entering the mosque with his vehicle.
"She stayed there in the car, monitoring the situation," Clevenger said. "At that point, he pulls onto the property, reverses to try to get at her, she pulls away and he chases her car around the mosque."
Buckhorn promised that law enforcement would investigate the allegations.
"We're not going to tolerate it," he said of the reported attacks, "and if we find it to be true we will prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law."
Shibly said the Muslim community is feeling more hostility lately in the wake of the terror attacks and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's proposal to bar all Muslims from entering the United States. He said he hoped Friday's news conference would help unite the community against anti-Muslim rhetoric.
"I think political leaders can either inspire fear and hate or inspire unity, and we hope this will be an opportunity for Tampa Bay leadership to call for unity," he said.
Yahya Chaudhry, an elder member of the mosque, asked people to understand his faith before judging it.
"We love. We always love. We have an open house," he said.