BRUSSELS - An arson attack targeting a Brussels mosque killed its 47-year-old imam, who tried to put off the fire, on Monday evening, March 12, and injured another man in the fire that destroyed the mosque entirely.
"He was a person who was loved by everybody," Abdel Adouzeyneb, a 39-year-old real estate agent, told Agence France Presse (AFP).
"He was open, well integrated, smiling and happy."
The deadly attack occurred shortly before 7pm local time when worshippers were preparing to perform evening prayers at Rida Shiite mosque, the largest of the four Shiite mosques of Brussels and its environs.
Describing the attack, Le Soir newspaper said a man carrying an axe, a can of petrol and Molotov cocktails was reportedly seen at the Shiite mosque in Anderlecht, a suburb of Brussels.
The man then broke the windows of the mosque and threw the incendiary devices inside, the newspaper added.
"A dozen worshippers were waiting to pray when someone entered with a bag," eyewitness Azzedine Laghmish told national broadcaster RTBF, BBC reported.
"Inside there was a container full of petrol which he threw into the centre of the room.
"The fire took hold very quickly. The imam tried to put it out but he found himself stuck in a room," Laghmish added.
Anderlecht Mayor Vincent Van Goidsenhoven said the suspect threw a Molotov cocktail at the mosque, Belga news agency reported.
"There is a lot of damage, apparently the entire mosque, or almost the entire mosque, burned down," said police spokeswoman Marie Verbeke.
"A suspect was taken into custody at the scene," Verbeke said, adding that it was too early to talk about motives.
Neither the name of the imam, who left behind four children according to Adouzeyneb, nor the name of the suspect was released.
The unprecedented attack was shocking to Belgian officials and Muslims as well.
Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet said she was "very shocked by the events that have occurred" which she condemned "with firmness and indignation," AFP reported.
Fadila Laanan, a regional minister said on her Twitter account that she was "scandalized by this attack in my community against a mosque."
"A man is dead and that is despicable, nothing can excuse such an act."
Within hours of the fire, several dozen people gathered at the ruins of the mosque, feeling betrayed and infuriated by the attack.
[I felt] a sadness difficult to describe," Ismael Ben Mohammad, 40, told AFP.
"I brought my son so that he can see blind hate, what it can do," he added.
Belgian Muslims are estimated at 450,000 - out of a 10-million-population - about half of them are from Moroccan origin, while 120,000 are from Turkish origin.
More than 20 percent of the population of Brussels is of Muslim origin coming from Morocco, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other African countries.
There are 77 mosques or prayer rooms in Brussels and over 300 across Belgium.
Among the mosques 77 imams, only two or three can speak Dutch or French, the official languages of Belgium.