County, state and federal officials are investigating a suspicious fire that destroyed an Islamic Mosque west of Joplin early Monday morning.
It’s the same Mosque, at 13th Street and Black Cat Road, where security cameras caught an attempted arson a little more than a month ago, on the morning of July 4.
That incident caused little damage to the building, but Monday’s fire left the Islamic Society of Joplin a gutted ruin.
Jasper County Sheriff’s Lt. Ron Thomas said at the scene that the 9-1-1 call came in at about 3 a.m. Monday. Thomas said a newspaper carrier made one of the first calls to emergency workers.
He said investigators from the Missouri State Fire Marshall’s Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI offices in Kansas City and Springfield were on the way to help with the investigation.
At a press conference held later Monday, Sheriff Archie Dunn and FBI Special Agent Michael Kaste, special agent in charge of the Kansas City FBI office, reiterated that investigators didn’t know for sure as of Monday afternoon that the fire was arson.
They said it was suspicious because of the incident on July 4 and other incidents.
Imam Lahmuddin, pastor of the Islamic Society of Joplin who only goes by one name, said he was the last to leave the building shortly after 11 p.m. after evening prayers.
“I closed the door like on a regular day and I closed the gate and I expected to come back this morning for the first prayer at 5 a.m,” Lahmuddin said. “Before 5 I got a call and I found this. Someone from the sheriff’s office called me, and when I got here, the fire had engulfed the roof.”
Lahmuddin said he thought of the events on Sunday in Wisconsin, where a man killed seven people in a shooting spree in a Sikh Temple near Milwaukee, when he saw his own Mosque going up in flames.
“The one thing that I would like to convey to all the people is, please, make this hate thing stop,” Lahmuddin said. “Yesterday we had the shooting in Wisconsin. It’s stressing my mind, when I saw this fire, I remembered that thing in Wisconsin. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow but we just need to make people aware that these things are going on and we need to stop this and catch whoever is responsible for doing this.”
Lahmuddin said members of the Joplin Islamic Center had gathered on Saturday and Sunday to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
He said about 20 invited guests from other churches in Joplin had joined the congregation for the event on Saturday.
Page 2 of 2 - “We were fasting for Ramadan and we broke the fast, so we invited them to come here at 7:30 and we started the program by introducing each other and I briefly described to them what fasting is for Islam,” Lahmuddin said. “We gave them a tour and took them to the prayer hall and we showed them what this place was.”
Father Francis Sierra, pastor of the St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Joplin, was one of those who attended Saturday’s service.
Sierra said he was shocked to learn the mosque he had visited for the first time on Saturday was destroyed less than 48 hours later.
“We don’t know that it is arson yet, but it is still a great loss, a loss to that community,” Sierra said at the press briefing at the Sheriff’s Office. “We wanted to come and offer our space for them if they can use it. The Christian community should come forward and support these people.”
Carole Pryor, Joplin, another member of the Episcopal Church who attended Saturday’s event, said she enjoyed the hospitality at the Islamic Society’s mosque.
“It was a beautiful service, they were so warm and welcoming,” Pryor said. “They were so friendly. They embraced us and showed us we are all one body in God.”
These are not the first incidents of vandalism that have happened here since the group purchased this former church in 2007.
Lahmuddin said in September, 2008 someone burned the sign out in front of the church. Soon after the sign was replaced, it was damaged by two shotgun blasts. The damage can still be seen on the sign.
I’m concerned now, I don’t want this thing to happen to other houses of worship,” Lahmuddin said. “Because it happened yesterday in Wisconsin and today here at our mosque and may God prevent the same thing from happening at other places. We are here in Joplin and God will protect us and help us serve him. If not here, maybe in another better place, but we will serve him.”
Special Agent Kaste, with the FBI, said that agency was deploying as many as 30 agents to Jasper County to investigate the incident, even as other investigators still work on determining the cause.
Dunn reiterated that investigators were still hoping to hear from anyone who might recognize the person shown in the video taken on July 4.
Dunn and Kaste declined to say if any of the video equipment survived this fire or whether they had recovered any evidence in this fire.