Just a half hour before their mosque was set ablaze on Saturday, members of the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association were in the building celebrating the birth of a baby, said the president of the association, Kenzu Abdella.
Shortly after the party left, a neighbour noticed smoke and called 911.
The fire was set deliberately around 11 p.m., police confirmed Sunday. Abdella said the group left at 10:30 p.m.
Police say they don’t know the motive, and they don’t have a suspect. They couldn’t say whether the fire was connected to the attacks in Paris that the Islamic State is taking credit for.
However a Muslim group is calling for police to treat the fire as a potential hate crime.
“We call on authorities to investigate this arson as a hate crime so a clear message is sent that these acts have no place in our communities,” Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said in a statement late Sunday.
“This attack is very disturbing. The mosque is regularly attended by families with young children. We are relieved no one was injured as this incident could have been much worse,” said Gardee said, who stopped short of drawing any link to the Paris terrorism.
“It’s hard to make that causal connection right now,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s something that we’re monitoring and we will let the investigators do their jobs.”
The Peterborough fire department has pegged damages to the mosque at $80,000, though the building’s exterior is relatively unscathed.
Abdella said the inside of the building is charred black with smoke damage.
“It’s not what we expected,” he said. “We thought it was minor.”
For now, the building is unusable, and he isn’t sure where they’ll go for their five-times-daily prayers while it’s being repaired.
He said he was shocked when he first heard about the fire, and that it was being treated as suspicious.
“The Muslim community has a very good relationship with the Peterborough community,” he said. “We had an open house just last year, and the mayor was here.”
Now Abdella knows the fire was deliberate, he believes it to be a hate crime.
“I’m devastated,” he said. “Children pray here.”
But he said the Peterborough community has been supportive in the hours since the fire, and for that, he’s immensely grateful.
Peterborough MP and federal Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef wrote in a statement, “My thoughts are with the families who visit the mosque for prayer every week.”
She added, “I wish to take this moment to remind us all that Peterborough-Kawartha is a warm and generous community … I know that the residents of Peterborough-Kawartha will be as upset as I am about this incident, and together we will continue to demonstrate that these sorts of incidents are in no way reflective of our community as a whole.”
Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett also issued a statement condemning the fire.
“Attacking a place of worship is a despicable act,” the statement said. “Masjid Al-Salaam, the name of the mosque, means mosque of peace.”
An online fundraising campaign was started Sunday to raise money for the mosque. It had raised more than $22,000 dollars by Sunday evening.