|Boca mosque sign vandalized again |
Anti-Islamic slur written on Assalam Center sign in English and Arabic, say police
Published Thursday, February 10, 2005 1:00 am
by By Sean Salai
The sign for a new Boca Raton mosque has been vandalized with an anti-Islamic slur, the first reported hate crime at the Assalam Center construction site since the same sign was burned repeatedly in 2003, according to police.
Although Boca police confirmed they were investigating the defaced sign as an anti-Islamic hate crime, they would not say whether they had ruled out George Aboujawdeh as a suspect. The Lebanese-born Christian served one month in jail for setting the same sign on fire repeatedly after the mosque broke ground in January 2003.
"It's a crime that we take very seriously," Sgt. Robert DeNeve, public information officer, told the Boca News. "The investigation is ongoing."
According to the police report filed Tuesday, the vandalism was phoned in by mosque member Saif El Hassan and occurred sometime between last Saturday night and Sunday morning. The graffiti, written with a black marker in Arabic and English, read, "f-- all Moslems."
Hassan, a self-employed wood finisher who lives in Boca, said he hoped the crime did not herald a new wave of anti-Islamic bias in the area.
"I hope it was an isolated incident, or the work of a child rather than a mature individual," Hassan told the Boca News. "This kind of destruction doesn't mean anything good. I don't understand why we've been targeted like this, because we haven't done anything to deserve it."
Assalam Center spokesman Reda Abdel-Fattah said workers on Friday had resumed construction and put the mosque sign back up for the first time since Aboujawdeh last burned it down. The restored sign and sudden presence of bulldozers might have provoked the vandals to strike, he said.
"There was nothing wrong until that point," Dr. Abdel-Fattah told the Boca News. "The justice system took care of the last person, so we really have no idea who wrote the hate language. Fortunately, I can tell you the person left behind very good evidence for the police that will be enough to convict him. There is no perfect crime."
Dr. Abdel-Fattah said the Assalam Center plans to proceed with construction despite the vandalism. The mosque should be completed within nine months, he said, rain or shine.
Criminal actions treated as hate crimes, or crimes against groups or people motivated by their beliefs, can lead to added jail time in Florida. A man convicted of murder, for example, would typically get 10 years added to his sentence if a racial motive was found.
Under Florida's hate crimes statute, anti-Muslim slurs at a mosque would be treated as an aggravated misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances, according to the Civil Rights Department of the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office.
The Assalam Center construction site, located near the intersection of Glades Road and Northwest Fourth Avenue, is in a quiet residential area not far from Florida Atlantic University and surrounded by Montessori schools, churches and synagogues.
The school and temporary headquarters for another new mosque, the Islamic Center of Boca Raton, is also located on the same street a few miles north. At Garden of the Sahaba Academy this week, the principal said Muslims at his school and mosque were relatively free from violence and suffered only occasional graffiti.
Christian and Jewish officials in the area, meanwhile, condemned the latest vandalism at the Assalam Center sign. They said they had no doubt that the incident was a hate crime, as bulldozers had resumed work at the site only last Friday.
"It's vandalism, it's deplorable, it's intolerant and it shouldn't happen," said Rabbi Gerald B. Weiss of Beth Ami Congregation, whose synagogue is adjacent to the construction site. "People should be free to build their own institutions without fear of intimidation. This is America, after all."
Weiss said it was unlikely the vandal was from the neighborhood, as the predominantly elderly residents did not speak Arabic. It was more likely a student or visitor to the neighborhood, he said.
"It's disturbing to me as a member of the community, because tomorrow this could be us or the church across the street," Weiss said. "There are always intolerant people and people who react inappropriately to imagined offenses. Especially since 9/11, the culture has fostered an anti-Muslim bias."
Pastor Gerard Olsen at First Assembly of God Church, a Pentecostal Christian church across the street from the Assalam site, also found it unlikely that someone from the neighborhood was responsible.
"We've chased people away from that area several times," said Olsen, the church administrator. "I don't think they live here. The religious congregations here may differ theologically, but most people know that there's a right way and a wrong way to express those differences."
Olsen, whose church was used by police as a gathering point for the six-week stakeout that caught Aboujawdeh in the act of arson back in 2003, added that one should not rule out teenage pranksters.
"I think it might have just been kids," Olsen said. "There hasn't been any criminal activity at that area for two years, as far as I know."
Anyone with information about the crime is urged to call Det. Michelle Vezina at 561-338-1298.
Sean Salai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-893-6427.