Authorities offered a $5,000 reward for information after someone tried to burn down a mosque in Houston just an hour before morning prayers were to have started.
No one was hurt in the attack at about 4:30 a.m. (5:30 a.m. ET) at Northshore Masjid Isa ibn Maryam in the Cloverleaf neighborhood, but the mosque's front section was heavily damaged and all four tires on the car of a mosque leader were slashed, according to investigators and the Islamic Society of Greater Houston.
The Harris County Fire Marshal's Office said the arsonist or arsonists doused the front door with a flammable liquid and set it on fire. A groundskeeper alerted by the fire alarm was able to extinguish the flames, it said.
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"Fortunately, nobody got hurt today, but God forbid — within an hour, there were people coming for their morning prayers," M.J. Khan, president of the Islamic Society, told NBC affiliate KPRC.
Khan said he was holding out hope that the attack was only a prank and "not a hate crime," but in a statement, the Islamic Society asked members to "remain vigilant about their surroundings" and said it was taking extra safety precautions.
"I couldn't believe it," Osama Helmy of Houston, who prays at the mosque, told KPRC. "This is a beautiful community. ...
"It's something that shouldn't happen," Helmy said. "It's a place where people are worshiping."
The fire was set just three days after Marq Vincent Perez, 26, was convicted of federal hate crime charges for having set a fire that gutted the Victoria Islamic Center in Victoria, about 150 miles southwest of Houston, in January 2017. Perez could be sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison, the Justice Department said.
Savoy Masjid, another Houston mosque, was damaged in an arson attempt just an hour after about 200 people had finished Friday prayers on Christmas Day of 2015. No one was injured in that incident.