Peterborough police are investigating a case of arson at the city's only mosque, an act that the president of the local Muslim association says was a "clearly a hate crime."

The fire broke out at the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association's mosque around 11 p.m. Saturday, police said. No one was inside the Masjid Al-Salaam mosque at the time.

But association president Kenzu Abdella said members of the congregation had been inside the mosque at 784 Parkhill Rd. just an hour before the fire broke out there, celebrating the birth of a new baby. 

'Bit of uneasiness'

"The scare for people is that what if this had happened while we were in there?" he said Sunday. "So there's a bit of uneasiness in the community."

Abdella said the Muslim congregation was devastated by the arson as members have placed roots in the community and integrated into the surrounding neighbourhoods.

The mosque holds regular open houses that are attended by churchgoers and politicians. They also make regular donations to the local food bank, according to Abdella.

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Congregation members clean up debris on Sunday after the only mosque in Peterborough, Ont., was deliberately set alight Saturday night. The blaze caused $80,000 in damage. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

'Out of nowhere'

"So to us, this is out of nowhere," he said. "Even when we were hearing all the things that are happening around the world, it never occurred to us that this could happen in our community."

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) issued a news release Sunday in response to the fire.

'I know the residents of Peterborough-Kawartha will be as upset about this as I am.' - Maryam Monsef, Liberal MP

"This attack is very disturbing. The mosque is regularly attended by families with young children," said NCCM executive director Ihsaan Gardee.

"We are relieved no one was injured as this incident could have been much worse," he added.

"While deeply hurtful and offensive, Canadian Muslims know that such acts do not represent the views of the vast majority of their fellow Canadians or of the residents of Peterborough," Gardee said in the statement.

The organization thanked local religious and political leaders for their words of support. Gardee also called on Canadians to remain vigilant against suspicious behaviour.

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Imam Shazim Khan walks past a charred wall on Sunday as he cleans up after the fire. The blaze, which was set intentionally, caused more than $80,000 in damage. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Mosque targeted before

There have been concerns that Friday's attacks in Paris could incite a rise of Islamophobia or retaliatory violence around the world.

Abdella said that since the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association was founded in 1994, there has been only one other attack on the local mosque.  After the 9/11 attacks, the previous building had its windows smashed.

But Abdella noted that local churches raised funds to replace them, something that was already happening again Sunday. A community group has also begun a crowdfunding campaign that had raised $48,000 by Monday morning.

"So it's very positive in that way," he said.

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The Qu'ran and other books are removed from shelves as congregation members clean up debris on Sunday after the only mosque in Peterborough, Ont., was deliberately set alight Saturday night. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Fire set intentionally

The community does not know where they will go for their prayers, which they observe fives times each day.

Initially, Abdella said they had hoped to open the building by the afternoon, but quickly realized that the $80,000 in smoke damage would make that impossible in the near future.

"It doesn't look good at all, it's all smoked out," Abdella said after walking through the building Sunday morning.

The provincial fire marshal ruled that the blaze was set deliberately, according to a Peterborough police spokesman. 

Sgt. Tim Millard said police will not be releasing more information until the fire marshal's office finishes its probe.

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Peterborough police are investigating a suspicious fire and suspected hate crime that targeted a local mosque. (CBC)

Political reaction

The Liberal MP for Peterborough-Kawartha, Maryam Monsef, said she was thinking of those affected by the fire Saturday night.

Monsef, who is also the minister of democratic institutions, added that she wanted to wait for the full results of the police investigation before commenting further.

"I know the residents of Peterborough-Kawartha will be as upset about this as I am," the first Afghan-born MP said in a statement. "Together, we will ... demonstrate that these sorts of incidents are in no way reflective of our community as a whole."

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The community does not know where they will go for their Islamic prayers, which they observe fives times each day. (CBC)

With files from Laura Fraser