LOS ANGELES — The vandalism of three Los Angeles-area Catholic churches in late October appears to have been the work of a single delusional Islamic radical. Emad Ibrahim Saad, 35, has been charged with a “hate crime” for allegedly defacing several statues and leaving Islamic literature in the churches that were vandalized.
But if Saad hoped to drive a wedge between Catholics and Muslims by his alleged actions, his plan appears to have backfired. A priest at one of the defaced churches and a spokesman for a nearby mosque agree that the incident has served only to draw their flocks closer together.
Three churches were hit by the vandalism, said Anna Maria Castro, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The churches of St. Raphael and St. Anselm in Los Angeles suffered only minor damage, but at St. Augustine Church in nearby Culver City, “a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was decapitated,” Castro added.
At St. Augustine's, a statue of St. Rita was also damaged, and a statue of Blessed Junipero Serra was cut off at the feet and deposited on the steps of the nearby King Fahd Mosque. As well, Castro said, “Some Muslim magazines were found at the scene.” The attack took place during Sunday evening Mass Oct. 28.
Saad is being held on $70,000 bail on charges stemming from the acts of vandalism at St. Augustine's.
He will face a preliminary hearing in Los Angeles Nov. 20.
Investigators also suspect Saad is responsible for hitting statues of the Virgin Mary with stones at St. Anselm's and St. Raphael's on Oct. 24 and 25 respectively, and of vandalism at an unnamed Los Angeles tabernacle on Oct. 30. But he faces charges only for the acts he allegedly committed at St. Augustine's because the evidence against him is strongest in that incident the Los Angeles Times reported Nov. 7.
At the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, the steps were damaged when the mangled statue of Blessed Junipero Serra was dragged over them. Usman Madha, the spokesman for the mosque, which is located near St. Augustine Church, was quick to condemn the vandalism. “I know the fathers at St. Augustine's,” he said. “Nobody should do anything like this anywhere, not just there,” Madha added.
Police believe that Saad is a member of the King Fahd Mosque, the Los Angeles Times reported, but Madha denied that. In fact, he said, the suspect had previously caused trouble at the mosque.
Madha added that Saad was delusional and a man whose “sense of reality is lost.” Not long ago, “he showed up [at the mosque] and started accusing the director of murdering his [Saad's] children,” explained Madha. After he was removed by security, Saad returned at a later time “disguised as a woman,” but again “security caught and shooed him away.”
Detective Lynn Hunter of the Los Angeles Police Department's Pacific Division was even more blunt about the suspect's mental state. “He's nuts,” she said of Saad.
Hunter also said that the Islamic literature found at the crime scene had been stolen by Saad from a local mosque.
Echoes of the Taliban
Usman Madha said Saad's alleged vandalism violates the fundamental tenets of Islam. “The Koran is specific that you don't destroy the statues … that other people believe in,” he said.
However, Saad is not alone in his hatred for non-Muslim religious artworks. In March, the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed several ancient statues of Buddha, claiming they were insulting to Islam.
The international community and many Muslim clerics condemned those actions. “Whether it's the Taliban or this lunatic,” said Madha, “people who commit such acts have no place in the civilized world.”
Mahda's greatest concern is that Saad could have driven a wedge between local Catholics and Muslims. “What he tried to do was create a rift between Catholics and Muslims,” said Madha, who attended Catholic school and whose wife is Catholic. “Thank God that did not happen.”
Most people understood the vandalism was not representative of Islam, Madha said. He added that the incident actually strengthened the relationship between local Muslims and Catholics.
“I agree with that 100%,” said Father Kevin Nolan, the administrator of St. Augustine Church. “Usman [Madha] came over and apologized profusely for what happened,” Father Nolan said, which was “really helpful for our people.”
Madha was already well known at St. Augustine Church, and gave several talks at the church on Islam in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Good From Evil
Father Nolan said even the children at the church's school have responded positively to the acts of vandalism. Although “it's difficult for them to see the broken images,” he said, “the school children are praying for the perpetrator.”
The damaged statues cannot be repaired until the FBI concludes its investigation of the incident as an alleged hate crime. In the meantime, Father Nolan said, the damaged images provide a powerful source of meditation: “The perpetrator cut off the hands and feet,” he noted, “and some in the parish have commented: ‘Aren't we supposed to be the hands and feet [of the Church]?’”
Summing up the response in the aftermath of the vandalism incident, Father Nolan said, “Grace is very much present.”
Madha also sees a great deal of good coming from the incident, in terms of the improved relationship between Muslims and Catholics. “Sometimes,” he said, “God works in mysterious ways.”
Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.