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Coachella Valley mosque fire: It was arson, say authorities

People at the Islamic Center of Palm Springs mosque described hearing a "loud boom" and seeing flames. A suspect has been arrested and charged. 

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    In this image made from video provided by KMIR-TV, firefighters battle flames at the Islamic Center of Palm Springs, a mosque in Coachella, Calif., just east of Palm Springs, early Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. The fire was contained to the small building's front lobby, and no one was injured. Its cause is under investigation.
    (KMIR-TV via AP)
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A Southern California mosque was damaged in a fire that authorities said was intentionally set.

Flames were reported just after noon Friday at the Islamic Center of Palm Springs, according to the Riverside County Fire Department. The fire was contained to the small building's front lobby, and no one was injured.

By late Friday night, the Sheriff's Department released a statement calling the blaze "an intentional act" and saying it would use all available resources to investigate.

The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that Carl Dial was arrested about 9 p.m. Friday and booked on five felony charges, including commission of a hate crime, arson, maliciously setting a fire and second-degree burglary, according to law enforcement sources and Riverside County Sheriff’s Department booking records.

People at the mosque Friday described hearing a "loud boom" and seeing flames, said Reymundo Nour, the mosque's acting imam, who was not on the site at the time. He said the mosque had been "firebombed."

State fire investigators, the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI are assisting in the investigation.

The mosque is about 75 miles from San Bernardino, where last week a couple who federal officials say were inspired by Islamist extremists killed 14 people. Some Muslims in Southern California and beyond have worried about the potential for reprisals, while leaders of various faiths have called for tolerance.

In a statement released Friday evening, U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, whose district includes the area in which the mosque is located, called on authorities to investigate the blaze as a possible hate crime.

"Our faith in humanity will not be intimidated," he said. "And we stand together against any form (of) violence towards the innocent."

County and city officials also condemned the attack.

"We see this as a cowardly act of vandalism that we not tolerate in our community," Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez said.

The mosque was hit by gunfire in November 2014 in what authorities investigated as a possible hate crime. No one was injured in the early morning incident. The case remains under investigation, and no arrests have been made.

After the Paris ISIS attack and the San Bernardino shooting, American Muslims have been concerned for their safety, The Christian Science Monitor reports

“I was in New York City and my mom called me telling me to stay indoors, that it may not be safe to be outside right now,” writes Zeinab Khalil, a graduate student of global affairs and public policy at Yale University, in an e-mail.

Khalil’s story is emblematic of how many Muslim Americans have come to respond in the wake of high-profile terrorist attacks, when hostility tends to rise and hate crimes to spike against Muslim communities across the United States. And even as local leaders work to form pockets of tolerance and compassion throughout the nation, radical political rhetoric combined with the amplifying power of social media have only exacerbated the public’s fears about Islam and those who practice it, advocacy leaders say.

“The everyday Muslim, they’re thinking, ‘Here we go again,’ ” says Edgar Hopida of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), based in Plainfield, Ind. “It’s like a fire drill. It’s time to hide under the table again.”

Some Muslim communities have responded to the attacks by raising funds for the families of victims. 

“We wish to respond to evil with good, as our faith instructs us, and send a powerful message of compassion through action,” the organizers of the fundraiser say on the campaign web page. “No amount of money will bring back their loved ones, but we do hope to lessen their burden in some way.”

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