Houston arson investigators probe blaze at Islamic center

By Camilo Smith

By Camilo Smith

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Houston arson investigators on Saturday were working to determine what caused a fire that destroyed a building at an Islamic institute in the city, officials said.

No one was injured in the early Friday blaze at the Quba Islamic Institute, fire officials said.

The fire destroyed one of three buildings at the center, which remains fully operational.

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

In a video on the institute's Facebook page, Ahsan Zahid, son of the imam, said fire officials told him the fire appeared to be arson.

He also urged the Islamic community and supporters not to assign blame until the investigation concluded.

Zahid told Reuters a series of odd events preceded the blaze.

On Thursday, members were shaken when a man drove by yelling at them. 

“We were leaving the premises, and a person driving a pickup truck was chanting in Arabic phrases, like terrorist do before they explode suicide bombs," he said.

The chants mockingly repeated the name of Allah, he said.

Earlier in the week, a man with his face covered had to be chased from the property, he said.

A fire official said it could be several days before the investigation into the cause of the blaze would be concluded.

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

Zahid said the fire caused more than $100,000 in damages.

The Houston fire comes days after a gunman shot dead three young Muslims near the University of North Carolina, riling Muslim activists who have demanded that U.S. state and federal authorities investigate the detained suspect for possible hate crimes.

Javid Sultan, the president at the University of Houston’s Muslim Student Association said students on campus were stunned to hear about the fire at the Islamic center.

"We're trying to be more proactive because you never know when something like this happens," he said. "It's getting pretty scary, and very close to home, being harassed based on our faith."

(Editing by Victoria Cavaliere & Kim Coghill)