HOUSTON (KTRK) --Arson police at the scene now say an accelerant was used in a fire that broke out at an Islamic community and education center in southeast Houston early Friday morning, and now a group is calling for an investigation into whether the fire was the result of a possible hate crime.
Houston fire officials say the fire at the Quba Islamic Institute started around 5am. The cause of the fire is under investigation, but we've learned HFD says the accelerant was used, which usually points to a purposeful act. Those same investigators met with leaders at another Islamic center just miles away, letting them know that this was an act of arson and to be on alert.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations is calling on state and federal authorities to investigate the fire as a possible hate crime.
That call comes as Ahsan Zahid, assistant Imam at the institute, says he spoke with the Houston arson investigator about their preliminary results.
Zahid said, "They said their dog went through and he hit on some substances inside the place, and he said, 'From what I see right now at this point, I have to say it was an incendiary fire which means that it was started on purpose.' That's all we can go on at this point. I don't want to speculate."
Though we don't know officially if the cause was accidental or deliberate, the FBI is now monitoring the situation.
Flames ate away at a building on the back of the property, which members tell us was only used for storage for books, renovation supplies, and furniture.
"The damage on the back building is total," said Houston Fire Department district chief Ken Tyner. "The whole entire building back there is burned up."
The assistant imam said they found a vandalized, smashed table on their property this morning and that he also said just last night, someone had driven by, screaming mocking chants.
Earlier this week, a masked man had been lurking around the institute, and had to be chased off the property.
The mosque and school at the front of the property were intact, but people who use them are feeling a sense of anxiety.
"The first thing we think about is hate crimes that could go on," said Hala Saadeh, who uses the community center. "It says right on the front -- Islamic Institute. We're not hiding ourselves."
Salman Zahid, a teacher at the institute, said, "This is like my second home you know? I come here -- I spend most of my day here."
The institute posted a message on their Facebook page, addressing the fire. It reads, in part, "There has been a tragic event at Quba Islamic Institute this morning. Sometime around 5:00 AM this morning, a fire was started in our third building. The blaze was so hot that the complete building and all its many contents were destroyed. But, Alhamdulillah, we are alive, safe, and united, by the favor of Allah! ... All activities will continue today, Inshallah. Jumuah Salah and Family Night will go on as planned, Inshallah. We ask that you pray for this Institute, that Allah protect us, and make us a Light for all the World to behold." To read their full statement, go to their Facebook page.
The Houston Fire Department says no one was in the building at the time of the fire and no one was hurt. They say the blaze was under control by 6:15am.
Officials with the Islamic center estimate the damages to be around $100,000.