LIMA: A mosque in the Brazilian city of Ponta Grossa was invaded and desecrated by vandals on Nov. 26.
The unknown criminals broke into the building’s hussainiya before the first morning prayer and dirtied the walls and some chairs, destroyed masbahas, and set fire to five volumes of the Holy Qur’an.
When the Iran-born Sheikh Mahmoud Shamsi left his house — which is in the same development as the mosque — for the first prayer, he smelled smoke, but thought it came from the street.
“Two hours later, when I got into my car, I realized that someone had stolen its radio player. That’s when I went to the hussainiya and saw that everything was messed up,” Shamsi told Arab News.
According to Sleiman Zabad, the president of the Imam Ali Mosque, the criminals set fire to a central table in the hussainiya, on top of which there was a volume of the Qur’an and a painting with a sacred verse.
“He certainly saw it as a kind of (Christian) altar and decided to destroy it. That’s why I think his intention was to desecrate the mosque, and his motivation was religious intolerance,” Zabad affirmed.
The mosque’s kitchen was also broken into, with the walls dirtied by the unknown assailants. Sheikh Shamsi said that another four volumes of the Qur’an were taken out of a wardrobe and burned.
“I think the person wanted to burn more things but heard when I went to the mosque for the morning prayer and ran away,” the sheikh added.
The mosque was founded more than 40 years ago by members of the Lebanese community in Ponta Grossa, a city in the Southern Brazilian State of Paraná. Now, more recent immigrants and refugees from Pakistan, Tunisia, Syria, and sub-Saharan countries also attend the mosque for prayers. It congregates about 400 people, both Sunni and Shi’a.
A few years ago, unknown invaders broke into the mosque and destroyed a few chandeliers. Nobody was arrested after the break-in.
According to Zabad, there is no atmosphere of religious intolerance in the city, and Muslims are totally integrated into the local society.
“On social media, however, people sometimes attack us,” he said.
The vandals have not yet been identified. The mosque’s security cameras were not working so the police still do not have images of the suspects.
Zabad said that there is expensive electronic equipment in the hussainiya but nothing was taken. Sheikh Shamsi said there was money inside his car, which also was not stolen.
Numerous civic and religious organizations have manifested their repudiation of the attack and expressed support to the Muslim community.
Rio de Janeiro’s Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance issued a statement on Saturday affirming that the invaders “not only wanted to attack the mosque’s building and the sacred symbols of our Muslim brothers but they wanted to attack mainly the Muslim community’s morals and psychology, given that the attack was carried out on Friday (the Muslim sacred day) and attained Islam’s holy book.”
Ivanir dos Santos, one of the committee’s founding members, told Arab News: “It’s a shameful episode of religious intolerance and disrespect to the Muslims. We hope that the police authorities will investigate and discover who the perpetrators are. And we hope that they will be held legally accountable for that vile act of intolerance and Islamophobia.”
According to Carlos Menezes, who heads Rio de Janeiro’s Islamic center and is also a member of the committee, the rise in cases of religious intolerance in Brazil over the past few years was a signal that sooner or later something like the recent mosque invasion would happen to the Muslim community.
“Brazil has always been a tolerant country, but we have been noticing a growing number of occurrences of that kind lately, especially against African Brazilian religions,” Menezes told Arab News.
He added that hate speech on the Internet has become more common in Brazilian cities where there are larger Islamic communities. The attack in Ponta Grossa somehow materialized that menace.
“Unfortunately, the current Brazilian president has been stimulating intolerance in society. Intolerant people feel free now to manifest their opinions,” he added.
Since the presidential campaign in 2018, President Jair Bolsonaro has been backed by large evangelical protestant segments. Members of his administration on several occasions have emphasized that Brazil is a Christian country, causing embarrassment among non-Christians.
Menezes said that since the Taliban resumed control in Afghanistan, Islamophobic verbal aggressions on social media have been growing.
“Now that the first physical attack occurred, other people may feel stimulated to do the same,” said Menezes, who also directs the Shi’a Human Rights Observatory, which monitors hate speech.
But the strong reaction of several Brazilian religious organizations to the aggression brings hope that the nation will not tolerate new acts of hate, Menezes added.
One of the first religious institutions to express its repudiation of the attack was the Israeli Federation of Paraná State. The organization manifested its “deep solidarity to Sheikh Mahmoud Shamsi and his congregation” and said that such acts are “inadmissible.”
“My parents are Lebanese and I was born here in Brazil. It’s a country which welcomes everybody,” Sleiman Zabad said.
“That kind of thing can never happen again. Not only to Muslims but to nobody. I will be equally sad if someone attacks the Bible,” he concluded.