PORTLAND – Police are searching for the person who spray-painted inflammatory slogans on the outside of the city’s largest mosque.

The graffiti included “Osama today, Islam tomorow (sic),” “Long live the West” and “Go Home,” and drew immediate and widespread condemnation from several city officials and advocacy groups.

“Muslims died in the twin towers and Muslims are serving overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones.

“They are welcome members of our city and are entitled to respect and the same hope and feeling of closure everyone else carries in their hearts today.”

The writing was done in maroon paint on the gray cement-block wall of the Maine Muslims Community Center on Anderson Street in the city’s Bayside neighborhood.

It was written sometime after President Obama announced bin Laden’s death Sunday night and before about 7:15 a.m. Monday, when it was discovered by nearby workers.

None of the people attending prayers in the building between 4:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. reported seeing the graffiti, leading police to suspect it was applied after 6:30 a.m.

A crew from Graffiti Busters removed the graffiti by 10:45 a.m.

The messages twisted the U.S. government’s success against its most wanted terrorist into an occasion of fear and division for Muslims in Greater Portland.

“It makes me feel like I’m not welcome,” said the mosque’s treasurer, Abdiaziz Mohamed. As a U.S. citizen with four children who were born here, “this is my home,” he said.

Mohamed said he is not naive, and he has seen people on TV express hatred toward Muslims, but he worries about the graffiti’s impact on children’s perceptions and the congregation’s sense of safety.

“Whoever did this is going to plan to do other things,” he said. “I think safety is important right now.”

Police Chief James Craig said investigators are treating the case seriously and that the incident doesn’t reflect the sentiment of the community.

As for the vandals, he said, “We will find you and arrest you.”

Craig said the case is being treated as a hate crime because it targeted a religion.

He said the case remains a Portland investigation, but the FBI has been consulted.

“Our focus is to make sure members of our Muslim community are safe,” Craig said.

But he noted that “this one incident does not represent that there is some imminent danger lurking in our community.”

Jirde Mohamed, a member of the mosque who works nearby, initially walked past the graffiti without noticing it.

He said he doesn’t understand why people would seek to attack Islam because of the behavior of a few people.

“Bin Laden and Islam is different,” he said, adding that he gets upset when people declare he is an enemy because of his religion. “I see good in everyone, Muslim, Christian or Jewish,” he said.

The Center for Preventing Hate denounced the inflammatory graffiti as an act of “hate and bias.”

“Muslims in Maine and across the U.S. deserve the same respect as all others who live here,” said Steve Wessler, executive director of the Portland-based center.

“They serve in our armed forces, teach in our schools and care for our sick. On Sept. 11, Muslim firefighters and paramedics courageously stayed in the twin towers trying to save lives.

“The death of bin Laden should be a call for the end of terrorism worldwide,” Wessler said. “It should not be the beginning of bigotry in our state. We are better than that.”

Abdiaziz Mohamed said Portland’s mosques have been free of bias incidents, in contrast to a mosque in Lewiston, where a man rolled a pig’s head into the sanctuary in 2006.

News of Monday’s vandalism reached Washington, D.C., where the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement denouncing the incident and calling on local and federal authorities to investigate it as a hate crime.

The mosque’s website said the building was purchased recently for $700,000 and the building’s new owners are now renovating it, Abdiaziz Mohamed said.

The building, which does not have a sign identifying it, has security cameras, but because of the renovations they were not working properly, police said.

Terri Anderson, who works across the street, noticed the slogans when she arrived for work at about 7:15 a.m.

The building had attracted some graffiti before the mosque opened there, when it was a printing company, but that was more doodling and not political, she said.

Noel March, the U.S. marshal for Maine and a community policing expert who is taking graduate courses in peace studies at the University of Southern Maine, said understanding and tolerance are important in preventing crime, fear of crime and social disorder.

Bigotry and hateful speech work against that.”They’re divisive and corrosive to the goal of safe neighborhoods, schools and homes,” March said.

“Irrespective of this news of the death of Osama bin Laden, our work together as a free society is not over by any means.”

– Staff Writer Ann Kim and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: dhench@mainetoday.com