AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A 37-year-old man has been taken into custody and charged with arson for starting a fire on Christmas day at a Houston mosque at which he has been a member, officials said on Wednesday.
Gary Moore was booked on Wednesday and being held at the Harris County Jail in Houston on a charge of first-degree arson at a place of worship. No attorney was listed for him in online records.
“There is no motive that is clear to us right now,” said Houston Chief Arson Investigator Ruben Hernandez.
Moore gave a statement to investigators at fire scene and was the last person to leave the mosque before the blaze. Moore has been a member of the mosque for several years and has denied his involvement, Hernandez said.
A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Houston Field Division said a hate crime motive had not been ruled out, though there was no evidence of that yet.
The fire was set in multiple places and there is video evidence of the incident, officials said.
“If this is not a hate crime, it should not be exploited as such. If it was, it should be exposed,” U.S. Representative Al Green said at the same news conference.
The Islamic Center of Houston, which is in a strip mall, caught fire after Friday prayers when it was mostly empty. No injuries were reported, but the fire caused major damage to the center.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise in the United States, stoked by recent Islamic State-related attacks in France and California and anti-Muslim statements by Republican presidential hopefuls.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which tracks such incidents, said the scale of vandalism, damage and intimidation at American mosques this year is the worst in the six years it has kept records.
Reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Maria Garza in San Antonio; Editing by Dan Grebler and Alan Crosby