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Monday, March 31, 2014

Mosque damaged in Halloween fire begins to rebuild

By Deb Gruver
The Wichita Eagle

Heavy winds Wednesday didn’t keep construction workers from putting up new trusses at a mosque damaged by a fire on Halloween.

The Islamic Association of Mid Kansas hopes to soon be back in Kansas’ first mosque, situated east of Towne West Square in the 3400 block of West Taft.

The mosque sustained about $130,000 in damage in the early-morning fire, the cause of which is still unknown.

Donna Sibaai, a spokeswoman for the mosque, said members of the community raised about $100,000 for the first phase of rebuilding.

Muslims traditionally don’t take out mortgages for their places of worship, she said. So whether building or rebuilding, they do so in phases.

The mosque serves as a community center and is open for social events and interfaith functions, she said.

“Men who work on the west side of town usually pray there,” Sibaai said.

The mosque was the first formal mosque in Kansas when it opened in 1978.

“It was started by a very small handful of families at the time,” Sibaai said.

Crews are rebuilding the exterior and interior. Scorched wood and siding remained visible Wednesday.

Wichita Fire Capt. Stuart Bevis said evidence still is being analyzed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ national laboratory. The fire remains under investigation, but the fire department cleared the mosque for rebuilding.

The mosque had received anti-Islam letters before the fire, but officials say they have not proved a connection.

Sibaai said many churches reached out to the mosque after the fire.

“The Muslims in Wichita are really, really grateful for the response we got from the community at large,” she said. “I think that’s something that makes Wichita really unique. Friends of other faiths reached out, and that’s really been a big part of this whole rebuilding process.”

There are three mosques in Wichita. The west-side mosque has been holding Friday prayers at a restaurant on the west side.

Cliff Loesch, pastor at University Friends Church, said that congregation sent the mosque a letter after the fire offering condolences and sympathy.

“We had talked about offering them space if they needed it,” Loesch said. “I know several people in the Muslim community and called them personally. The reason we felt it was important was because we felt like was the Christian thing to do to reach out to people in need. We reached out to them in Christian love and charity.”

Loesch said it seemed especially important to do so because of the letters the mosque had received.

“It’s got to be nerve-racking to be receiving hateful letters,” Loesch said. “We wanted them to know there are people who appreciate who you are and who appreciate your presence.”

Lois Harder, co-pastor of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church, said that congregation also reached out.

“On a personal level, I’m friends with a few of the folks who worship at that mosque, enough that I felt a connection to those folks and felt badly that that had happened to my friends,” she said. “But I think it’s important for all people to have empathy and compassion for one another. When something lousy happens like a fire or any other kind of tragedy, we need to reach out to each other. That’s part of what it means to be human.”

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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