The Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center in St. Paul was damaged by suspected arson on May 17, 2023. Credit: Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations

The 42-year-old suspect charged in the arson and burglary of a St. Paul mosque Wednesday told investigators he’s Muslim and that he started the fire to protest homelessness, according to court documents.

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office filed charged Said Murekezi Friday with one count each of felony second-degree arson, second-degree burglary, and fifth-degree drug possession for a fire at the Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center.

Murekezi told investigators he made sure no one else was in the building before he set the fire, adding that it was “fun,” according to the charges. He also allegedly told investigators that had he not been caught, he would have gone on to vandalize a “church,” another mosque in St. Paul, and a mosque in Mankato. 

Murekezi, who has no permanent address, was arrested Wednesday and was in custody at the Ramsey County jail as of late Friday afternoon. He had no attorney listed for his case.

Murekezi “said that he burned the building as a form of protest, because of other Muslims in the community having to sleep outside in the cold,” the charges say. “He said the building is not serving anyone, but the people need it.”

The mosque was being renovated and was not occupied at the time of the fire. It was last used for religious services in 2021, but has continued to house mosque office space, court documents say.

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office issued a written statement Friday stating that there is no evidence in the case linking the alleged crimes to bias. 

Local law enforcement, the FBI, and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigated the case. 

According to the criminal complaint: Police found video surveillance from a school building near the Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center that showed an individual walking to the mosque about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. The person entered the building from the south side through a broken or open window. 

At approximately 8:40 a.m., the person exited the building on the east side; smoke was visible from that area about a minute later. A photo taken from the video showed the suspect wearing a black shirt and “a distinct orange gown,” the charges say. 

Investigators interviewed a bus driver from the nearby school, which led them to video of the suspect throwing what appeared to be a rock through a window at the mosque the day before the fire. It was the same window used to access the building Wednesday. 

Investigators used photographs from surveillance video and facial recognition technology to identify Murekezi as the suspect, according to the charges. 

Police arrested Murekezi about 8 p.m. Wednesday in downtown St. Paul dressed in clothing that matched the surveillance video. In an interview with investigators, Murekezi allegedly said he broke into the mosque on May 16 and stayed overnight “looking for things inside to burn,” according to the complaint. 

Murekezi allegedly recounted details of how the fires started, and provided their locations, which matched evidence from the scene, the charges say. 

Court records show that Murezeki has a history of vandalism. He was on probation for first-degree criminal damage of property. In 2023, he broke windows at a Catholic church in Minneapolis. He was convicted last November of second-degree arson. In 2021, he broke windows at an Islamic community center in Minnetonka. He was charged with one count of second-degree arson for a 2020 incident. 

The Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center was damaged by suspected arson on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Vandalism at Minnesota mosques

The fire is the sixth incident targeting Minnesota mosques in 2023, according to the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Minnesota).

Four incidents have been widely publicized:

  • 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 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.

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-Minnesota, said the other two incidents include:

  • A man used a large object to smash several windows and the main door of Ummatul Islam Mosque in Minneapolis on April 10. Damages were estimated at more than $10,000.
  • Jackie Rahm Little spray painted a door at the 24 Somali Mall in January. Minneapolis police said last month that during their investigation into the April 23 fire, they learned that Little was suspected in prior vandalism at the mall, where Masjid Omar Islamic Center is located.

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...