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Worshippers relocate after arson fire damages Thonotosassa mosque

Investigators look for clues Friday at Daarus Salaam Mosque after an early morning arson. [JAMES BORCHUCK/Times]
Published Feb. 24, 2017

THONOTOSASSA — A call from a security company roused Mazen Bondogji from sleep about 2 a.m. Friday.

The sprinklers at the Daarus Salaam Mosque had been activated, a company representative told Bondogji, who serves on the mosque's board.

Bondogji arrived to find firefighters dousing a small fire in front of one of the entrances of the mosque at 15830 Morris Bridge Road.

Within hours, investigators confirmed the fire had been deliberately set.

"Whoever did this maybe intended to discourage us not to be part of this community," Bondogji said at a news conference later Friday morning. "But this makes us stronger than before, than ever, because of the huge amount of support and solidarity we are receiving. We are part of this community and we will stay."

Firefighters responded to the fire alarm at 2:10 a.m., said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokesman Corey Dierdorff. A single engine arrived and quickly put out the fire.

No injuries were reported.

The state fire marshal and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began an investigation and confirmed the fire was an arson case. Physical evidence at the scene led investigators to conclude the fire was deliberately set but Dierdorff declined to elaborate on what was found.

What appeared to be holes in the mosque's glass door were not caused by bullets, authorities said. The fire did not breach the entrance, but the radiant heat triggered a sensor on a sprinkler just on the other side of the door, causing several sprinklers to douse an area of the mosque, Dierdorff said. Officials were working Friday to estimate the cost to repair the damage.

Bondogji said the mosque, owned by the Islamic Society of New Tampa, had reinforced the glass on the door with security in mind.

Investigators planned to pull surveillance video from several cameras mounted on exterior walls of the mosque, said Thania Diaz-Clevenger, civil rights director for the Council on American–Islamic Relations Florida, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group known as CAIR.

CAIR Florida announced on Twitter it is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Friday's fire comes about seven months after a string of fires broke out at Tampa-area mosques last July and August. Out of the five reported, two were ruled arson.

Dierdorff said it was too early in the investigation to determine whether Friday's incident is connected to any of the other local mosque fires.

The Daarus Salaam Mosque, whose name means "house of peace," is just outside the Tampa city limits.

At the news conference there, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the arson targeting a place of worship is no different from the wave of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish community centers and synagogues across the country and bomb threats in cities including Tampa.

"There are tens of thousands of Tampanians who do not happen to be Muslim but today stand with our Muslim community and say not on my watch, not in my city," Buckhorn said. "We will not tolerate this. We will stand up in the face of opposition. We will stand up in the face of anybody who would choose to demonize anybody for any reason, specifically and directly because of their religion."

Friday is the day Muslims gather to pray together, and the fire broke out about four hours before worshippers were to arrive for the early morning prayer session. Congregants who showed up to the early morning prayer session were able to spread out their prayer rugs in another building on the campus.

But that building is not large enough for the several hundred who were expected for later prayer sessions so another church offered to host the worshippers until repairs are made. In addition, a multi-faith gathering of support for the mosque was scheduled there Friday night.

As Buckhorn spoke, mosque members were working at a nearby table, cutting and painting arrow-shaped signs to direct people to the other church.

In a time of tension and division in the country, the aftermath of a criminal act drives home a message, said Daarus Salaam member Adeel Karim.

"The story here is the love," Karim said. "Love overcomes fear."

Authorities asked anyone with information about the case to call the state fire marshal's arson tip line, (877) 662-7766. Tipsters who provide information leading to a successful prosecution may be elgible for a cash reward. Callers can remain anonymous.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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