Winona Lutheran church offers worship space after Islamic Center lost in blaze

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Muslim worshipers in Winona have regrouped for prayer at the city's Central Lutheran Church. The Winona Daily News reported it's the result of a neighborly gesture offered after Winona's Islamic Center was damaged in a massive downtown blaze in the river city in the southeastern part of the state early Friday.

The Islamic Center was one of three building destroyed by fire. The cause of the fire has still not been pinpointed, but investigators stress that there were no immediate signs of arson. No one was injured.

Ahmed El-Afandi, founder of the Islamic Center, told the newspaper that he is grateful for the immediate offer from the nearby Lutheran congregation. Hours after the blaze broke out, about 15 members of the Islamic Center held a congregational prayer at the church, which left its doors propped open as a sign of welcome.

"Know that we're here for you," one of the pastors said to El-Afandi.

El-Afandi said the First Congregational Church of Winona United Church of Christ also reached out to offer space even before the flames had been extinguished.

"We have Jews, Christians, Muslims calling us today," El-Afandi said. "Let's make (this) an opening-up for better relationships with our neighbors."

Meanwhile, KARE 11 reported at least 20 Winona State University students escaped from their downtown apartments while smoke and fire filled the building. Several of the students saw they were roused by a pounding on their doors by Abdulla Almomnned, who arrived from Saudi Arabia two months ago to attend WSU.

The university is offering help to students, including beds in campus dorms.

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