February 14, 2015 / 5:00 PM / 5 years ago

FBI monitoring investigation of fire at Houston Islamic center

HOUSTON (Reuters) - The FBI is monitoring an investigation into a fire that destroyed a building at an Islamic institute in Houston and could take a more active role, a bureau spokeswoman said on Saturday.

The blaze early on Friday at the Quba Islamic Institute destroyed one of three buildings there, but no one was injured, fire officials have said. The institute has continued operating since the blaze.

Houston Fire Department arson investigators were working to pinpoint the cause of the fire, but no official determination has been made, officials said.

The fire came days after a gunman shot dead three young Muslims near the University of North Carolina. The incident drew international attention and Muslim activists urged authorities to investigate it as a possible hate crime.

The Houston FBI office would get more involved in the probe if investigators determine the fire was arson and qualified as a potential hate crime, said special agent Pat Villafranca.

“We’re not going to jump to any conclusions,” she said.

The FBI says hate crimes are fully or partly motivated by bias against race, religion, ethnicity, disability, gender or sexual orientation. They generally carry greater penalties.

According to FBI statistics, U.S. law enforcement agencies reported about 6,900 offenses motivated by bias in 2013, of which 165 offenses resulted from bias against Muslims.

Attacks on Muslims in the United States have become an increasing concern after the deaths of Western aid workers and journalists at the hands of Islamist militants in the Middle East. Authorities fear their deaths, captured on video and distributed worldwide, may fuel rising Islamophobia in the West.

Ahsan Zahid, son of the imam for the Houston institute, said in a video on the Islamic center’s Facebook page that fire officials told him the blaze appeared to be arson.

He also urged the Muslim community and supporters to withhold judgment until authorities finish their investigation.

A representative for the Houston Fire Department did not immediately return calls on Saturday morning.

Zahid, who estimates the blaze caused $100,000 in damage, said on Friday the fire followed a series of suspicious events.

On Thursday, a man drove by the institute yelling at it, chanting Arabic phrases and mockingly repeating the name of Allah, he said. Earlier in the week, a man who had covered his face had to be chased from the property.

The Texas office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations has called for authorities to investigate a possible bias motive if the blaze is determined to be a case of arson.

Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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