Members of an Islamic centre in Essex said they were "very saddened" by a fire at their mosque, which appears to have been targeted in an arson attack, one of a string of recent attacks on mosques and religious centres.
The damage was discovered when people arrived for prayers at 4am on Monday morning at the mosque in Harlow. Although the damage was limited, a determined attempt seems to have been made to destroy the building, with the police reporting that the doors had been sealed with foam.
Community leaders and the police appeared with the chairman of the Harlow Islamic Centre, Ajaib Hussain, at a press conference to denounce the attack.
Zia Rehman, vice-chairman of the centre, said: "We have been working very hard within the local community, building bridges, and we were hoping we wouldn't have this kind of problem but in the current climate there are elements within society that are not happy and there are issues. It's unfortunate and we are very saddened."
The mosque held a funeral last year for Dr Sabah Usmani, and her five children, aged three to 12, who died in a fire at their home: her husband, Dr Abdul Shakoor, who survived by jumping from a window but was unable to save his family, still attends the mosque. A 19-year-old from Harlow has appeared in court and been bailed, on suspicion of arson and attempted murder.
Chief Inspector Ed Wells praised the calm response from the members of the centre and promised police would work tirelessly to identify those responsible.
The building was placed under police guard all day as services and children's lessons resumed. A forensic investigation involving the Essex fire service got under way and CCTV footage was being studied.
"I want to thank Mr Hussain and the rest of his team who remain very dignified and calm despite this very concerning attack," Wells said. "I join him in being very pleased that there has been virtually no disruption to the activities of the prayer centre. This crime affects not just those who are part of the prayer centre, but the vast majority of residents who are equally appalled at this crime."
Rod Truan, the deputy leader of Harlow council, described it as "an extremely concerning incident", adding: "We are in contact with the police and the Islamic centre to offer whatever help we can. If this is in fact an arson attack, I know Harlow and all its faiths will stand together to deplore an act of this nature."
A surge in attacks on Islamic centres has been reported since soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death outside Woolwich Barracks on 22 May: two men are currently in prison awaiting trial for his murder.
The first attacks, in Essex and Kent, were reported on the night of his murder. Within weeks, petrol bombs, which failed to start a fire, were thrown at a mosque in Grimsby while people were inside praying: three local men are on remand, charged with intent to endanger life. In June, a Somali centre and mosque in Muswell Hill, London was destroyed by fire. The letters EDL, the initials of the English Defence League, were scrawled on a wall. Later in the month, two men were charged with plotting to set fire to a mosque in Gloucester, where petrol was poured around the door and set alight.