JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — A mosque in southwest Missouri burned to the ground early Monday in the second fire to hit the Islamic center in little more than a month, and investigators spent the day combing through the wreckage searching for evidence of arson.
No injuries were reported, but the Islamic Society of Joplin's building was a total loss after the blaze, first reported at about 3:30 a.m., the Jasper County Sheriff's Office said. As of late Monday, nobody had been arrested in connection with the fire.
Investigators from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the Jasper County Sheriff's department were at the scene all day Monday, moving the rubble with a bulldozer and other equipment. A specially trained dog assisted.
Only remnants indicated a building had been there, including some stone pillars that were still standing and a few pieces of charred plywood loosely held up by a frame.
While investigators did their work, a small group of Muslims gathered for an evening prayer on the lawn of the destroyed building.
"This is what we stand for," said Dr. Ahmed Asadullah, a member of the Islamic Society of Joplin. "Freedom of religion. Freedom of speech."
It was the second time this summer investigators had been called to the Islamic center, located in a former church on the outskirts of Joplin. A fire reported around the same time on July 4 has been determined to be arson, but no charges have been filed. The FBI has released a video of a suspect caught on surveillance video and offered a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in that fire.
Michael Kaste, special agent in charge of the Kansas City office of the FBI, said the investigation into Monday's fire was in the preliminary stages, and that about 30 people had been assigned to the investigation.
"Any act of violence to a house of worship is taken very seriously by law enforcement, and threatens the very core of the safety and security of our communities," Kaste said.
Kaste said it was too early to say if there was surveillance video available from the Monday fire. The Jasper County Sheriff's office said earlier Monday the video equipment had been destroyed. The FBI was encouraging anyone with information about either fire to call authorities.
"We just want to get the word out there to generate people to really come forward," he said.
Jasper County Sheriff Archie Dunn said patrols at the mosque had been stepped up since the July 4 fire at the mosque was determined to be arson.
Imam Lahmuddin, who leads the mosque and was in the building until late Sunday, said he was "sad and shocked" about the fire. He had been at the mosque since before dawn Monday, and remained there late in the evening.
"Maybe there is something we are supposed to learn from this," he said.
A Washington-based Muslim civil rights organization meanwhile called for more police protection at mosques and other houses of worship following the Joplin fire and a deadly attack at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. The Council on American-Islamic Relations also offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever started the mosque fire.
About 50 families belong to the Islamic Society of Joplin, which opened in 2007 as a mosque and community center. The FBI led an investigation in 2008 when the mosque's sign was torched. That crime also remained unsolved.
Lahmuddin, who has lived in Joplin for about four years, said several people were at the center late Sunday. He said despite the attacks, the center's members have good relationships with residents and other churches. He said many are doctors at area hospitals. The center also served as a shelter and staging area for volunteers who came to help Joplin after the May 22 ripped through the city, killing 161 people.
On Sunday, a gunman killed six people at a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee. The imam said it was a cause of great concern that both faiths had seemingly come under attack.
Jill Michel, pastor of the South Joplin Christian Church, said several area churches have offered their churches to members of the Islamic Society if they need a place to gather. She said she and other faith leaders from the community had been at a dinner Saturday at the center, and that the community would rally around the center's members.
But, she said, the shooting at the Sikh temple in the Milwaukee area was also on her mind.
"I can't imagine driving up to my church and having it burned to the ground," Michel said. "I worry about what any of this sort of thing says about humanity."