A Muslim mosque in west Wichita that was heavily damaged by fire early Monday had received anti-Islam letters in recent months.
Somebody also had begun turning on its outside water faucet overnight to hike its water bill, its leader said.
Abdelkarim Jibril, president of the Islamic Association of Mid Kansas at 3406 W. Taft, said the letters put down Islam, called the prophet Muhammad a pig, and enclosed drawings that mocked him.
The mosque received about eight of the letters starting four to six months ago, but they had stopped about a month ago, he said.
Jibril said the mosque hadn’t turned the letters over to authorities before the fire.
The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined the fire investigation Monday.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.
Investigators are aware of the letters.
“We don’t know if any of the letters have any relationship to the fire at this point. It’s something we’re looking into though,” said Wichita fire Lt. Troy Thissen.
"We're not ruling out anything," Wichita fire Capt. Stuart Bevis said.
The blaze was reported at 12:45 a.m. at the association, southeast of Maple and West streets.
The fire spread quickly and gutted the attic, Bevis said. Damage was set at about $130,000.
“It’s a fairly good-sized structure,” he said. “We had fire get up in the attic space early on.”
Firefighters had to assume a defensive posture soon after arrival because of the danger posed by being inside the structure with upper levels on fire, Bevis said.
The fire may well have totaled the mosque, he said, because of the extensive damage to the attic and roof support structure.
"We're going to be taking a lot of steps" to review evidence because the fire involves a religious meeting place, Bevis said.
Jibril, who has been president of the association for most of its 32-year history, said he was called to the scene about 4 a.m.
“It’s devastating to see something like that, or see somebody even try to do something like that, “ he said.
Jibril said the anti-Islam letters appeared to have been sent by the same person because they contained the same types of pictures and same handwriting. Among the messages: “I don’t need to know anything else about you but 9/11”, Jibril said.
Enclosed pictures included drawings of prophet Muhammed with a beard, Jibril said.
“We don’t allow pictures of the prophet,” he said.
Most of the letters were mailed from somewhere in Texas with the mosque’s return address on the envelopes, Jibril said.
Some letters were sent to cities in the east, such as Boston, with the mosque’s return address on them.
Mosque leaders were talking about turning them over to the FBI and had decided to do that, but didn’t do it before the fire.
Jibril said the letters would still have been in the office at the mosque at the time of the fire.
The mosque’s outside faucet began being turned on during the night at about the time the letters stopped a month ago, Jibril said.
That action raised the association’s monthly water bill, normally about $30, to $500, Jibril said.
Jibril said the mosque will be rebuilt.
“We need a place on the west side for the people that live and work on the west side,” he said.
Hussam Madi, a spokesman for the Islamic Society of Wichita, who also delivered sermons at the mosque, said the fire was “ very, very sad” for the people who prayed there.
The mosque was the first to open in Wichita.
Muslims bought the building, formerly a Mennonite community center, in 1979. Muslims had held prayer services in homes or other churches until then.
About 30 or 40 people attended Friday services at the mosque, which also held Sunday school classes, classes in Arabic, holiday prayers and other gatherings, Jibril said.
Although there are two mosques on the east side of Wichita, the mosque on the west side served members of the Muslim community who live on both sides of the city, Madi said.
Muslims from the east side who flew out of town on Fridays often would stop there to pray before they left town, he said.
The fire already has caught the attention of one national organization.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American/Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., said he will be monitoring the investigation to see whether it is deemed to be a hate crime. "This is the kind of thing that happens all too often," he said, "but it's hard to predict."
In the past year, arsonists have targeted mosques, or mosque construction sites, in Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Michigan, he said.
In May of last year, a bomb exploded at a Florida mosque.