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Homeless Man Charged in Houston Islamic Center Arson, But Motive Remains Unknown

A homeless man has been charged with arson in connection with a fire last week that heavily damaged a portion of the Quba Islamic Institute mosque and school in a residential neighborhood of Houston.

Suspect Darryl Ferguson, 55, was arrested Monday evening after he approached arson investigators who were canvassing the neighborhood near the mosque, the Houston Chronicle reported. Investigators said Ferguson, who has a lengthy criminal record and had been staying in the area, confessed to setting the fire, claiming it was accidental.

Authorities have not said if they intend to classify the arson as a hate crime.

In a Facebook posting and media interviews, mosque officials say they were told by investigators that the fire at 5:30 a.m. Friday was deliberately started by someone using accelerants.

Two dozen firefighters from the Houston Fire Department had the fire knocked down within an hour but the blaze gutted one of three buildings — primarily used for storage — that comprise the mosque and school complex.

No one was injured. A damage estimate hasn’t been released.

It is the latest in a string of at least four suspicious fires or arson attempts at Houston-area mosques in the past decade.

The arson fire in Houston occurred just three days after the murder of three Muslim university students in Chapel Hill, Va. The FBI is now conducting an initial inquiry to determine if those killings constitute a hate crime, warranting a federal investigation.

“A lot of people have the feeling that perhaps the mentality is the same,” Ahsan Zahid, son of the Houston institute's imam, told the Los Angeles Times after the fire at the mosque.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Zahid noted the preliminary finding of arson and added, “I hope it's not a hate crime.”

Houston — the fourth largest city in the United States — has the largest population of Muslims in Texas, an estimated 57,000 people. The state of Texas, meanwhile, has the nation’s eighth largest Muslim population, 420,000 people, who are served by 166 mosques.

Some of them, it appears, have been targets of hate crimes.

In March 2011, a fire at the Clear Lake mosque in southeastern Houston damaged a library, kitchen and women’s prayer room. Two months later, three masked men captured on security cameras poured gasoline on prayer rugs at the Madrasah Islamiah mosque, but a large fire failed to ignite.

In May 2004, a late-night arson fire damaged the Msjiad Almuhaymin mosque in Houston while the facility was locked and vacant.

There have been no arrests in any of those arsons, according to media reports.

But last May, at the end of a lengthy sting investigation, the FBI arrested a man from a Houston suburb who allegedly plotted to kill police officers and blow up government buildings and mosques.

Robert James Talbot Jr., 38, of Katy, Texas, who used the online alias of “Robert Liberty,” pleaded guilty in October to attempted interference with commerce by robbery and solicitation to commit a crime of violence.

Most court documents in his case are sealed from public viewing, but the docket report shows Talbot is scheduled for sentencing on April 10.

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