LEWISTON, Maine – Earlier this month, Muslim men participating in a serene evening prayer ritual at Lewiston Auburn Islamic Center were sharply interrupted: A severed, frozen pig's head, slightly larger than a basketball, was thrown into the mosque.
The man charged in the incident, 33-year-old Brent Matthews of Lewiston, told police it was a joke. But community leaders and others say the act was a hate crime, and the incident has heightened concerns that local discrimination against Somalis has not eased.
"Our message is simple: An attack on any house of worship is an attack on all houses of worship," Rabbi Hillel Katzir told a group of about 150 Wednesday including the town's mayor, governor, students and community activists who rallied in support of the Somali worshippers.
Muslims are prohibited from eating pork, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations contends the act was an insult upon Islam. The Rev. Jodi Hayashida from First Universalist Church in Auburn said the incident was no harmless prank. Instead, she said it represented a type of "casual hatred" that demanded a response from the Lewiston-Auburn community.
"A line has been crossed, a line that is very dangerous and a line that this community cannot afford to cross," she said.
Lewiston is home to more than 2,000 Somali refugees, who began moving there in 2001 for affordable housing. Their move to the former mill town of about 35,000 along the Androscoggin River has not been without a few bumps along the way.
In 2002, then-Mayor Larry Raymond created a furor by asking Somali community leaders to stop the influx. White supremacists tried to stir things up with a rally, but they were shouted down and local residents rallied in support of the Somalis.
Four years later, though, it's evident that tensions remain.
This week, the state attorney general filed a civil complaint against a white woman from Greene who is accused of spitting on a Somali man and using racial slurs in a traffic confrontation last November in Lewiston.
Matthews was charged with desecration of a place of worship, a misdemeanor, following the pig's head incident. The attorney general is reviewing the incident to determine whether to prosecute under Maine's civil rights statute. Also, the FBI has been conferring with local police to determine if federal hate crimes laws were violated.
Defense lawyer James Howaniec, who asked a judge for a gag order to prevent officials from further discussing the incident in the media, declined comment Wednesday.
"We feel that too much has been said about this case already. It's our intention to let this case be resolved in the court system where it belongs," Howaniec said.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the pig's head incident fits with what he sees as a pattern of vandalism against mosques, with recent incidents in Indiana, Arizona, and Maryland.
Overall, though, FBI statistics show that hate crimes against individual Muslims have declined since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In 2001, there was a high of 366 cases, and the figure has steadily declined to 32 in 2005, said FBI spokesman Bill Carter.
Hussein Ahmed, who was in the mosque when the pig's head was thrown in, said the incident backfired on the suspect.
Instead of dividing the mosque and the Lewiston-Auburn community, "he brought us closer together," Ahmed said.