- Associated Press - Friday, September 29, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Two men accused of spray-painting profane references to Allah on a Tennessee Islamic center and placing bacon around an entrance are facing federal charges, authorities said Friday.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI said in a joint statement that 19-year-old Charles Dwight Stout III and 18-year-old Thomas Avery Gibbs were indicted on charges of conspiracy and committing a civil rights violation by damaging and defacing the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. In addition, Stout is charged with destroying evidence in the case by deleting photos of the vandalism.

The indictment says the men targeted the center because of its religious character. It says a forensic examination of Stout’s phone found anti-Muslim images and photos of Nazi soldiers and Hitler.

The men tried to conceal their identities while defacing the property, with Stout allegedly wearing a World War II-era Nazi gas mask, the statement said.

According to court records, both pleaded not guilty Friday in U.S. District Court in Nashville. Their public defender, David Baker, did not immediately return a call for comment.

The center has been the focus of controversy for years. It was housed in a small facility before a county judge approved an expansion in May 2010. Opponents sued to halt construction, but it opened in August 2012. Since announcing its expansion, the center has endured public protests, vandalism, arson of a construction vehicle and a bomb threat.

The latest vandalism was found on the morning of July 10, when members arrived for prayer. They found green graffiti messages with expletives spray-painted on a side door, on the back of the building and on an outdoor basketball court. Messages were spelled out using bacon, and bacon was wrapped around an exterior door. Muslims don’t eat pork.

A man who answered the phone at the center on Friday declined to comment on the case.

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