Since 1989, the Al-Khoei Islamic Center has been a staple for the Muslim community of Queens, which is one of the most diverse boroughs in New York, boasting over 100 different nationalities and 138 different spoken languages.
On Sunday night, the centre came under attack by a man who threw fire bombs or Molotov cocktails at the main entrance of the mosque. The same man also attacked two residences and a grocery store.
The attacks started in the evening, first the Yemeni-owned grocery store, then the Al-Khoei Islamic Center, soon after a residence that also housed a Hindu temple and two other properties. There were 80 parishioners inside the centre during the attack. There were no injuries reported in any of the attacks.
Structural damage to the building was minimal, but some members of the centre were emotionally shaken, the assistant imam at the centre said.
The decades-old foundation is among the foremost Muslim institutions in New York, with branches around the world. Named for one of the most influential Shia scholars, it promotes work in development, human rights and minority rights as a general consultant to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
According to the police authorities, the suspect created Molotov cocktails using Starbucks Frappuccino bottles and could possibly be the same person who was kicked out the grocery store, which would be attacked later, for shoplifting a Starbucks Frappuccino bottle and milk.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) had a suspect in custody on Tuesday morning, who reportedly confessed to the crimes. Police officials released a sketch based on witness descriptions and a surveillance video from one of the attacks, which led to the arrest. He was described as a dark-skinned male, between 25-30 years old, 5’8 feet tall and weighing around 200 pounds.
Police officials, who have not released the suspect’s name, did not comment on the criminal charges against the suspect but authorities are treating the attack as a bias crime.
Meanwhile, political leaders spoke out against the incidents. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said New York Police Department hate crimes unit detectives were working with precinct detectives and looking into whether there were any connections to incidents outside the city.
Bloomberg, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, local New York officials, and religious leaders gathered at Al-Khoei Islamic Center for a press conference to express that such attacks of any kind would not be tolerated.
“Whether it was senseless violence or a hate crime will be determined down the road. But either case — we will not tolerate it and in this city the number of incidents like this are very low but one is one too many,” Bloomberg said at the Center.
New York education officials expressed special concern in the mosque which is connected to a private school, Al-Iman School, for elementary and junior high school students.
The Al-Khoei Islamic Center and its community members held a candlelight vigil on Monday night to condemn the attack on the mosque.
“We are one family. If one gets hurt, the entire family gets hurt,” said Imam Maan Al-Sahlani during the press conference.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in 2010 there 1,552 victims of a bias crime motivated by religions and of that an estimated 13 per cent of bias criminal acts in the United States were against Muslims and/or their community.
*With additional files from Associated Press.
Sadef A. Kully is a former reporter of Dawn.com, currently based in New York.