CORVALLIS, Ore. – Steady rain Tuesday didn't stop people from attending a candlelight vigil in support of an Islamic center targeted by an apparent hate crime after a teen who occasionally worshipped there was accused of planning mass killings in Portland.
Hundreds of residents of this small college town came out for the vigil at the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center.
Elizabeth Oettinger, senior minister of the First Congregational Church United Church of Christ, said a number of religious leaders organized the event to show support for the Muslim community after the center's office was set on fire Sunday.
Authorities have said the blaze was the result of arson and they're investigating whether it was a hate crime, set because Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, sometimes worshipped at the center. Mohamud was arrested Friday in an FBI sting on charges he tried to set off a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in downtown Portland, authorities said.
He has pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Oettinger said residents lit candles at the charred mosque to show their support for its members.
"We wanted to surround it in fire and light in solidarity and friendship," she said.
Corvallis police Capt. Jonathan Sassaman told The Associated Press the fire was apparently started by someone who broke an office window and threw in a container of flammable liquid. He said evidence has been shipped to the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Va., in hopes of finding fingerprints and DNA, and of identifying the type of liquid used.
"Certainly it spread in the room," Sassaman said of the liquid. "Lots of items were melted."
Rabbi Benjamin Barnett noted the vigil outside the mosque came one day before the start of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, the festival of lights.
"Truly this is a festival of lights right now," he said. "The Muslim community — Muslim brothers and sisters standing here now outside your holy place — have been dealt a blow of darkness. The question is, what's the light in response? And I think I'm looking at it right now."
Mohammad Siala, the center's administrator, said members have already forgiven whomever set the fire.
"We forgive him or forgave them, not because (we are) outnumbered or because we are weak, but with your support here tonight and standing by your side, we tell them that there is no place for prejudice toward anybody, regardless of the faith or race or nationality," he said.
Elizabeth Thomas, who works at the front desk of the Oregon State University tutoring center, said she wanted Muslims in her community to know that the rest of Corvallis cares about what happened to them.
Scott Riordan of Monmouth said he attended the vigil to show his support for diversity in Oregon.
"It's the diversity that makes (Oregon) excellent, and I think that's what we're here for," he said.
Earlier in the day, local contractor and real estate agent Michael Byers was among the many non-Muslims who offered their help and sympathy to members of the mosque.
"When Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma, nobody went and burned his church down," said Byers, who was helping the mosque buy replacement windows and other materials to rebuild the office.
Larry Pickard, a retired special needs teacher, brought a sympathy card and flowers, which he placed with a growing display on the ground near the green doors that are the mosque's main entrance,
"I don't want other communities to think this kind of thing happens here," Pickard said. "No matter what religion you are, the core of all religions is peace and compassion ... whether you are Islamic or Christian. You shouldn't let one individual person reflect on the rest of us."