July 21, 2006

Muslims told state is safe after mosque attack

By Sarah Mahoney

LEWISTON, Maine (Reuters) - Authorities reassured Muslims
on Friday that Maine is safe after the state filed a
civil-rights lawsuit against a man accused of rolling a frozen
pig's head into a mosque during prayers.

Noel Bonem, director of the northeastern state's new office
of multicultural affairs, said Maine was working with public
safety officials to protect its 6,000 to 8,000 Muslims after
the incident in Lewiston, the state's second-largest city.

The incident angered state politicians and local community
leaders, who feared it would intimidate Lewiston's estimated
2,000 Muslims, many of them members of its burgeoning Somali

Bonem said a civil-rights lawsuit filed on Thursday by the
state attorney-general against Brent Matthews, 33, sends a
message to Maine's Muslims "that mosques will continue to be a
safe haven, and that such acts will not be tolerated."

The suit, which calls the pig-head toss "a threat of
violence," would require Matthews to stay away from the mosque,
and its members, and could carry a fine of $5,000.

Islam forbids the eating of pork.

Published reports have quoted Matthews as telling police
that he bowled the pig's head into the mosque on July 3 "as a
joke," but James Howaniec, his lawyer, said Matthews has
entered a not-guilty plea.

Howaniec said he expects Matthews, a construction worker
now free on bail, will be charged with desecrating and defacing
a place of worship in local court, a misdemeanor charge.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also considering
federal criminal charges against Matthews.

Maine has the smallest percentage of non-white residents of
any U.S. state; the U.S. Census bureau says 96.9 percent of its
residents are white.

Lewiston's Somalis, who had come to the United States
fleeing war in their chaotic African homeland, have been
threatened before.

In 2003, after public remarks by the then-mayor about the
growing Somali community, white supremacists converged on the
city of 35,000 to stage a hate march against the "invasion" of
the Somalis. The event generated international headlines.