Angry neighbours, other faith groups reach out to help after Ontario mosque torched

, Ont. — On Monday afternoon, as the sun began to set, Avril Rustaigh-Johnston pulled her bad knee up the stairs outside the only mosque here.

She held a bouquet of flowers in her left hand, her right leaned heavily on the plastic rail. When she reached the top, she tried the handle and found it locked. So she left the flowers out front, perched gently against the wooden door.

Rustaigh-Johnston moved to Peterborough in 1972 to attend Trent University. She thought back then she would stay for three years, maybe four. But instead, as people do, she met someone. She married him. And she’s lived here ever since.

The woman came to the mosque Monday to defend her long-time home, in a way, and to apologize for it.

“I’m ashamed of my city, of the people who did this,” she said. “There’s a lot of yahoos here — it’s a blue-collar town —  but I never would have expected this.”

Peterborough, a small town and gown city northeast of Toronto, was the site Saturday of what police are now treating as a hate crime.

Sometime before midnight, they believe, someone approached the mosque from the east. They smashed one of the large side windows and hurled an accelerant inside.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan DenetteTHE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan DenetteKenzu Abdella, right, President of the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association hugs Larry Forsey after Forsey gave a donation to the mosque Masjid Al-Salaam in Peterborough, Ont., on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015.

Kenzu Abdella, a Trent professor and the president of the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association, got a call about 11 p.m. that night from a friend.

“All they said was, ‘The mosque is on fire,’ ” he said.

Abdella, who lives 10 minutes away, raced down the street. He saw smoke pouring out of the building.

“It looked really bad,” he said. “We really thought it was going to burn down.”

In the end, firefighters extinguished the blaze. No one was hurt. The mosque was empty. But the damage inside was significant.

On Monday afternoon, insurance adjusters toured the interior. It’s too early to say exactly how much the repairs will cost, Abdella said. But it could be in the $80,000 to $100,000 range.

Politicians at all levels, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, condemned the incident Sunday and Monday.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan DenetteTHE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan DenetteFlowers outside the mosque Masjid Al-Salaam in Peterborough, Ont., on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015.

In a statement, Trudeau described himself as “deeply disturbed” and vowed that law enforcement would do everything it could apprehend the perpetrators.

“The values that make our country great are values that celebrate our diversity and our religious tolerance,” he said. “ is a country that is strong, not in spite of our differences, but because of them.”

Locally, the attack has been met with a mix of shock, shame and fury.

As Abdella stood outside the mosque Monday afternoon, speaking to reporters, Pat Parnall, a resident drove, past in tears.

“I’m so sorry,” she told him.

Sameena Quadri and her family, who live just up the street from the mosque, moved to Peterborough about 10 years ago. They are originally from Pakistan.

Quadri wears a patterned, bejewelled head scarf. But she says she’s never been harassed or experienced racism in Peterborough because of her faith.

Speaking Monday, she seemed almost bemused by the attack on the mosque. The locals, she said, “are good friends to us.”

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher KatsarovTHE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher KatsarovCongregation members clean up debris, on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, after the only mosque in Peterborough, Ont., was deliberately set alight Saturday night.

Members of other church groups have already reached out to offer what help they can.

Larry Gillman, president of the local Beth Israel Synagogue, heard about the attack Sunday night while attending an interfaith dinner to raise money for Syrian refugees.

“I’m angry. I’m absolutely angry,” he said. “This is a hate crime.”

Gillman, who knows Abdella, offered him space Sunday in the synagogue for next Friday’s prayers. As it turned out, he was too late.

The Muslim congregation had already accepted an offer from the Mark Street United Church downtown to use its friendship room for the Friday gathering.

Rev. Eilert Frerichs, the minister at Mark Street United, said whoever attacked the mosque was acting “like a terrorist.”

“When we use tactics of hate, we become the enemy,” he said.

He called the offer of space a recognition of the sisterhood and brotherhood all people, regardless of creed, share.

“More than anything else, at a time of fear and hatred, what we need is reconciliation,” he said. “That’s what I want people to know.”

Related‘Vengeful rage’ is not the answer after ‘evil’ Paris attacks: Ontario premier on burned mosque in PeterboroughNational Council of Canadian warns community to be vigilant of backlash after ParisThe only mosque in Peterborough, Ont., was ‘deliberately’ set on fire, police say

Police are treating the fire at the mosque on Saturday as a hate crime, authorities said Monday.

While no specific evidence to support that conclusion was found, Insp. Larry Charmley said, it’s obvious the Muslim community was targeted.

“The timeliness of this fire at our local mosque, certainly we’re going to treat it as a hate crime,” said Charmley, noting it occurred a day after the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed nearly 130 people.

Saturday’s attack came not long after a divisive federal election, where a Muslim woman’s right to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony became, for a time, a dominant issue. On Monday, the new federal government announced it was abandoning an appeal launched by the Conservatives in that case.

Investigators in Kitchener, Ont., meanwhile, are also investigating weekend vandalism at a Hindu temple there.

Dilip Dav, president of the Ram Dham Hindu Temple, said several windows at the rear entrance of the temple were shattered late Sunday. None one inside was hurt, but they were unable to see who did the damage.

National Post, with files from The Canadian Press and Peterborough Examiner

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