Hundreds gather and show support at scene of burned Victoria mosque
VICTORIA — One day after fire destroyed this city’s exquisite gold-domed mosque, hundreds of people of many faiths came to pray, grieve and show support, even as federal agents picked through the charred rubble.
“Love Thy Neighbor,” read one poster. “We Will Rebuild With Love,” read another. While some folks came from as far away as Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio for the morning service, most were local residents.
“It was wonderful and amazing. Today, I feel we are one big family in Victoria. We are not alone,” Imam Osama Hassan, speaking hours later, said of the outpouring of support.
And after the speeches and prayers ended, some in the crowd lingered.
“People were giving us hugs, with tears in their eyes, telling us how sad they were, and trying to give us donations,” he said.
The early-morning fire came a week after a burglary at the mosque and a day after President Donald Trump imposed travel restrictions on seven Muslim countries.
And although some were quick to assume it was the work of an arsonist, investigators called in to assist the local fire marshal have offered no clues as to their theories or findings.
“We are praying it will prove to be an accident, and not something else. We reject the hate,” Hassan said.
And while few people in Victoria are jumping to conclusions, given the national political climate, some are bracing themselves for the dreadful possibility that it was a hate crime.
“I’m kind of stoic about it. It will be what it will be. We don’t have a history of that here, but everyone has a weird Uncle Harold,” said City Councilman Tom Halepaska, 67, who owns a bakery.
“As a community, we’ve always been very open, including with the Muslim religion. We just want to live in peace,” he added.
Mayor Paul Polasek echoed those sentiments.
“The word that describes it for all of us is sad. It was a beautiful place of worship. I’m ready to get a new one built and go forward,” he said.
“We just need to be very supportive, and make sure people get good facts and good information,” Polasek added.
Abe Ajrami, a member of the Islamic Center, was among those who delivered a message of unity and appreciation at the Sunday morning service, held outside the ruined mosque.
“The first few hours, we were alone, watching the fire. But when people started hearing the news, the response was phenomenal,” he said, reliving Saturday morning.
“The support from the community and nationally has been wonderful. We have a GoFund account, and over $600,000 has been raised in the last 30 hours,” Ajrami said.
As of Monday morning a total of $869,167 had been raised.
In the meantime, worshippers are meeting for daily prayers in a vacant doctor’s office. If all goes well, construction on a new mosque will begin soon, Hassan said.
Hours after the Sunday service ended and the crowd had dispersed, motorists were pulling in one after another to gaze quietly at the burned mosque.
“I’m speechless. I didn’t expect it to be completely destroyed,” said Amin Mohd, 63, who had driven from Houston.
“I feel grief. I feel sorry for these ignorant people out there. I think it’s causing fear,” he added.
Nearby, Toby and Meagan Montez and their seven children who had just attended Mass were having an important family meeting in their parked car.
“We were talking about what it means to love thy neighbor and that it’s important for everyone to be able to worship in peace, even if they believe differently than us. It doesn’t matter,” said Meagan Montez, 36.
“I’m heartbroken for them. You don’t want people to live in fear,” she said of the local Muslim congregation.
“I’m also heartbroken for the people who think this is the way to handle things. They are apparently afraid of the Islamic community here, who are outstanding citizens,” she added.