Feds called in to investigate Ypsilanti mosque fire

Detroit News Staff and wire reports
Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigate a fire at a mosque in Pittsfield Township.

Ypsilanti— Federal law enforcement was on the scene Sunday to lead an investigation into a fire at an Ypsilanti mosque.

Pittsfield Township Fire Chief Sean Gleason said there is no indication this early in the investigation that the cause of a fire at the Islamic Center of Ypsilanti on Saturday is suspicious. But because of its designation as a mosque, officials contacted the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations asked local, state and federal fire investigators and law enforcement authorities to probe the fire as a possible act of arson.

“We urge state and federal agencies to use their full resources to investigate this fire to determine a cause and, if it is determined to be arson, a possible motive,” CAIR-MI Executive Director Dawud Walid said in a statement. “Anyone who has information about this fire, or saw anything suspicious at the time of the blaze, should immediately contact law enforcement authorities.”

CAIR-MI is offering a $1,000 award for information given to law enforcement authorities that leads to conviction of the perpetrator if the fire is ruled to be arson.

The Fire Department was called to the mosque shortly before 4 p.m. Saturday. When firefighters arrived, they found the middle section of the building in flames. Firefighters were able to quickly extinguish the fire. Nobody was inside the building at the time.

A dozen ATF agents were on the site Sunday, with some focused on determining the cause of the fire and others canvassing the neighborhood for witnesses, said spokeswoman Ronnie Dahl.

An agent from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigates a fire at a mosque in Pittsfield Township, Sunday, March 12, 2017.

She said anyone with information is asked to contact the ATF tipline 1-888-ATF-TIPS or report the information through the Report-It app.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell said Sunday that she was “deeply concerned to learn about the fire ...”

“At a time when we are seeing an increase in threats against members of our communities based on race and religion — whether at a mosque or a Jewish Community Center — there is obvious reason for concern, and there are many questions as to what happened and why.”

Dingell said she spoke with law enforcement officials and was pleased federal authorities were joining the investigation.

“If it is found to be arson, the perpetrators must be held accountable,” she said. “As a community, we must stand united against hate and division in our society.”

The fire follows threats to mosques and synagogues across the country in what some have called a rise in hate crimes reflecting anti-Semitism and Islamophobia following Donald Trump’s election as president.

The American Moslem Society in Dearborn received a threat in February that disparaged the Prophet Muhammad, and referred to followers at “agents of Satan.”

A fire that began at the door to a mosque’s prayer hall in the Tampa area last month was declared intentionally set. No one was at the mosque when the fire occurred. Investigators from the ATF also responded to the scene but said the local Fire Department was leading the investigation. It was at least the second intentionally set fire at a Florida mosque in the past year.

In January, the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield Township was evacuated and searched after a bomb threat leaders said followed others at similar facilities in the U.S.

And earlier this month, the U.S. Senate signed a letter, led by Michigan Sen. Gary Peters and three others, urging the Trump administration to take "swift action" in response to recent bomb threats made at Jewish community centers, day schools and synagogues around the country.

The message came as the JCC Association of North America reported March 7 that several more JCCs received bomb threats by phone or email overnight and Tuesday morning.

A Wayne State University forum in Detroit last month was designed to examine the issues and histories of the two major religions and to find way “to come together to learn from each other,” said Dr. Muzammil Ahmed of the Michigan Muslim Community Council, which with the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC presented the event.

A lawsuit over an Islamic school in the area was settled last fall. The Muslim Community Association sued Pittsfield Township in 2012, claiming it violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when township officials refused to allow the Michigan Islamic Academy to build a school on vacant township property it owned.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.