Arson investigation
Investigators on scene of a suspected arson fire at the Islamic Center of Escondido. Photo: OnSceneTV

Police believe an early morning fire Sunday at an Escondido mosque may have been caused by arson and are investigating it as a hate crime.

The fire was reported around 3 a.m. at the Islamic Center of Escondido, according to Escondido Police Lt. Scott Walters. The mosque is on West Sixth Avenue near South Escondido Boulevard.

Seven people were inside the building when they noticed a fire had been set to the outside of the mosque, Police Lt. Chris Lick said. They were able to get the blaze out with a fire extinguisher and called 911.

None of the seven saw who set the fire. No one was injured, and the fire only caused minor exterior damage.

Graffiti was left on the building making reference to the terrorist attacks that killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this month, Lick said.

Escondido police and fire investigators, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Bomb/Arson Unit and agents with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are now investigating the incident as arson and a hate crime.

The San Diego office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the attack and called for stepped-up security and police protection at Islamic institutions across California.

“A little more than a week after 50 Muslim worshipers in New Zealand were brutally massacred at the hands of a white supremacist terrorist who cited Donald Trump in his hate manifesto, that same hatred has resurfaced in Escondido,” said Dustin Craun, executive director of the San Diego office of CAIR. “It is disturbing enough that some sick individual would attempt to burn a house of worship to the ground, but referencing the slayings in New Zealand is beyond the pale.”

Members of the public were encouraged to call Escondido police to report suspicious activity in the area of the mosque.

“Our message to community is to make sure they keep a watchful eye out,” Lick said. “If they see something suspicious, especially around a house of worship, they should call police.”

Updated at 7:45 p.m. March 24, 2019.

— From Staff and Wire Reports