Members of the Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center pray outside of the mosque Wednesday afternoon. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Authorities are investigating a fire at a St. Paul mosque Wednesday as “suspected arson,” marking the fourth time in four weeks that a mosque in the Twin Cities has been vandalized.

The fire occurred at the Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center, 430 Dale Street N. The St. Paul Fire Department tweeted that the building, which was being remodeled, was unoccupied at the time and that no injuries were reported. 

Firefighters arrived at the scene of the “intentionally set fire” about 8:45 a.m. and extinguished it in about 10 minutes, said St. Paul Deputy Fire Chief Roy Mokosso. St. Paul police said at a 2 p.m. news conference that no arrests have been made in the case.

Abdulrahim Doyo, an Imam at the Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center, said as of 3 p.m. that he and other members of the mosque had not been allowed in the building. He didn’t know where the fire started. 

“We have another place to worship,” Abdulrahim said, “but we need this place back.”

The parking lot around the mosque remained taped off late Wednesday afternoon as St. Paul police and agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) investigated the scene. 

“It is a mosque that has been part of this community for sometime,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Minnesota). “And unfortunately today—this morning—this mosque has been completely burnt. This is one of the most serious burning or attacks against the mosque that we know of today in the state of Minnesota. We still do not know the extent of the damage.” 

Mokosso said the state fire marshal is also working on the investigation.

“You will be caught and absolutely held accountable for your actions,” Mayor Melvin Carter said of the arson suspect.

CAIR-Minnesota issued a news release saying that the mosque was “heavily damaged” in the fire, and that the cause has not been determined.

“This unfortunate event occurred while the building was being remodeled,” Mokosso said at one of two news conferences held Wednesday about the fire.

Mokosso told Sahan Journal that because the building was “somewhat vacant” during the remodeling, there have been “numerous” break-ins and reports of previous vandalism, including graffiti, at the mosque. It’s unclear whether those incidents were motivated by religious bias or the building’s vacancy, he added.

It’s also unknown whether Wednesday’s fire is related to a mosque vandalism in St. Paul last week or the fires at two south Minneapolis mosques last month, Mokosso said.

“We take this very seriously,” said St. Paul Deputy Police Chief Joshua Lego.

Lego said it was too early to say how many people could have been responsible for the fire.

“The impression is, and I won’t argue with it, our mosques do feel under attack,” Lego said. “This is the second incident of damage to a mosque in our city in less than a week, and the sixth that’s been recounted here.”

Carter said he was “disgusted” by the fire and other mosque vandalism. St. Paul police are “upping patrols” and “upping our readiness” to prevent future vandalism and to respond quickly when necessary, he added.

“We’ve said it before and I hate that we have to say it again, but we will say it again and again and again—we do not tolerate attacks against our communities of faith,” Carter said. “This was a mosque that was attacked today, but make no mistakes about it—our communities of faith were attacked today.”

About 18 men knelt in prayer outside the mosque next to yellow police tape about 1:30 p.m. More arrived minutes before a 2 p.m. press conference to show solidarity. Some were members of the Twin Cities mosques that had been previously targeted.

Other non-Muslim faith leaders in St. Paul, including Reverend Frenchye Magee from Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church, also visited the mosque in a show of support. Magee’s church is next door to the mosque.

“We will not stand for this type of act, it is not only shameful, it is cowardly,” Magee said. “If you are intending to attack one house of faith you are attacking all of us.”

“This is a hate crime,” State Representative Samakab Hussein, DFL-St. Paul, said at the scene. “And this is Islamophobia. And this is—I mean, if one Muslim person does something similar to this, we call them terrorist. But this should be a terrorist.”

YouTube video
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations held a news conference at 2 p.m. Wednesday, May 17, about suspected arson at the Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center in St. Paul.

The fire Wednesday is the sixth incident targeting Minnesota mosques in 2023, said CAIR-Minnesota.

There have been four widely publicized incidents of vandalism against local mosques:

  • Wednesday’s fire at the Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center.
  • A masked suspect threw a chunk of concrete at Masjid As Sunnah in St. Paul on Friday, May 12. St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Mike Ernster said Wednesday that no one has been arrested in the case.
  • Jackie Rahm Little of Plymouth allegedly set a fire in the bathroom at Masjid Omar Islamic Center, which is located in 24 Somali Mall, in Minneapolis on the evening of Sunday, April 23.
  • Jackie Rahm Little of Plymouth allegedly set a fire in the third floor hallway of Mercy Islamic Center, which houses Masjid Al Rahma, in Minneapolis on Monday, April 24. Little was indicted with one count of arson and one count of damage to religious property for the Minneapolis fires. He remains in custody at the Sherburne County jail.

Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan took to Twitter to speak out against the mosque vandalism.

“In the last several months, Minnesota’s Muslim community has experienced several attacks motivated by hate,” Walz wrote. “In Minnesota, we have a zero tolerance policy toward violence. We continue to stand with our Muslim friends and neighbors.”

“The attacks we’ve seen on our Muslim neighbors are unacceptable,” Flanagan wrote. “We will continue working to ensure everyone can practice their faith without fear. Hate has no home in Minnesota.”

The Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus (POCI) issued a statement condemning the vandalism.

“The POCI Caucus stands in solidarity against the recent attacks on mosques,” said the group’s statement. “We are appalled and saddened by these hate-motivated acts towards our Muslim communities. Minnesotans deserve to practice their faith without fear of persecution or discrimination. The Muslim community in Minnesota is a vibrant and diverse part of our state. They are our neighbors, our friends, and our family.

“We stand with you in condemning these attacks and defending your right to practice religion freely and without fear. It has become clear that the underlying cause of these attacks is Islamophobia. Hate crimes are a serious threat to our community, and we must all work together to combat them.” 

CAIR-Minnesota urged the local Muslim community and Islamic institutions across the country to take extra security precautions, and shared a link to CAIR’s booklet, “Best Practices for Mosque and Community Safety.”

“We will rebuild and we will continue… to practice our faith without fear,” Jaylani said.

St. Paul police asked for the public’s help solving the case.

“I encourage anyone who has knowledge of or knows of what happened here today to please call the police department,” Lego said, adding that there will be increased security at mosques. 

How to share information about the fire with police:

St. Paul police are asking anyone with information about the fire to call 651-291-1111.

Katelyn Vue is the housing reporter for Sahan Journal. She graduated in May 2022 from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Prior to joining Sahan Journal, she was a metro reporting intern at the Star...

Alfonzo Galvan is a reporter for Sahan Journal, covering work, labor, small business, and entrepreneurship. Before joining Sahan Journal, he covered breaking news and immigrant communities in South Dakota,...