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Investigators Seek Motive For Christmas Day Fire At Houston Mosque

Mosque Fire
Carrie Feibel | Houston Public Media
Crime scene tape remains at the entrance of a mosque in southwest Houston. It has been closed since a Christmas Day fire that investigators say was arson.

Businesses are open and clean-up continues after a Christmas Day fire at a storefront mosque in southwest Houston that investigators say was arson.

The strip shopping center houses about a dozen small businesses, including a café showing Bollywood films, a children’s health clinic, and the Savoy, a Pakistani restaurant that’s been there since the 1980s.

Imran Momin saw the fire break out about 2:30 p.m. on Friday, an hour after the end of mid-day prayers. Momin’s family runs the Savoy restaurant and he is the landlord for the entire strip center.

A restoration crew was working inside the restaurant Monday morning, cleaning out air ducts that had channeled smoke from the fire.

“There’s nothing inside,” Momin said of the mosque. “It’s done.”

Momin said firefighters cut off power and gas to the restaurant Friday, and he had to shut down on one of his busiest days.

“It’s just sad that it happened on Christmas day,” Momin said. “That’s the day that you make money.”

Farther down the sidewalk is an office for the corporate headquarters for AishasGroup, a chain of Houston spas that provide beauty and threading services.

Usman Hasib, 29, is a vice president for the family business, which his mother Aisha started. He says the small mosque has been there at least since the early 1990s.

“We’ve been running around here since I was eight years old, and I was attending that mosque also for prayers, or any kind of classes, or anything,” Hasib said. “It’s sad to see it in that state.”

He has considered the possibility of a hate crime, but he hopes he’s wrong.

“It was very scary, a very scary thought,” Hasib said. “Because you do hear about these things lately, you know, with the political atmosphere. With all the rhetoric on television. And you hear about it, and it hit so close to home.”

Investigators have determined the fire was started by someone, but don’t have a motive or suspect.

Nicole Strong is a senior special agent at the Houston office of the  Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The federal agency is investigating the arson, along with the Houston Fire Department.

“The fire was ruled ‘incendiary,’ which means it was intentionally set,” Strong said. “But no evidence, at this point, of a hate crime.”

Imran Momin expressed contempt and impatience for whomever set the fire.

“Why? It was Christmas, dude. And who cares?” he said. “I mean, Muslim, Christian, whatever you are, it’s still religion, it’s still one God.”

To him, the different religions around the world are like the highways in Houston, Momin explained. They are all leading to the same destination.

“I tell my wife, it’s like, you know, we’ve got to get to Reliant (NRG Stadium),” he said. “Either you take Beltway 8, or you take 59, or you take 610. You’ll get there. That’s the way I look at religions.”

Because the fire was set at a house of worship, those responsible could face federal charges.

Copyright 2020 Houston Public Media News 88.7. To see more, visit Houston Public Media News 88.7.

Carrie Feibel is a senior editor on NPR's Science Desk, focusing on health care. She runs the NPR side of a joint reporting partnership with Kaiser Health News, which includes 30 journalists based at public radio stations across the country.