- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

From combined dispatches

Authorities said yesterday that four more Baptist churches in rural Alabama were hit by arson, bringing to nine the number of church burnings in the state in less than a week.

In fires late Monday night or early yesterday, Dancy First Baptist Church near Aliceville and Spring Valley Baptist Church near Greeneville were damaged, while Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church near Boligee and Galilee Baptist Church near Panola were destroyed.

The five Alabama churches that burned last week also were the homes of Baptist congregations.

State officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were investigating the fires.

Investigators found “some similarities in the crimes that make us believe they are connected” to the weekend blazes, senior ATF special agent Austin Banks told the Demopolis Times.

After confirming that the four latest fires were the work of arsonists, Mr. Banks said evidence is being sent to the ATF laboratory in Atlanta.

Mr. Banks said authorities are searching for “a dark-colored [sport utility vehicle] occupied by two white males,” which was seen in the area of all nine fires.

Although the four most recent fires occurred at churches with predominantly black congregations, Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations, said four of the five churches burned last week had white congregations.

“There is no indication that this is racially motivated,” Mr. Banks added.

The fires reported yesterday occurred in three counties — Greene, Sumter and Pickens — on the Mississippi border. The churches that burned last week were in Bibb County, southwest of Birmingham and about 60 miles from the sites of the fires this week.

A $10,000 reward was offered for information about the first round of fires.

Roy Willingham, mayor of Emelle, Ala., near the Spring Valley Baptist Church, said the location of the churches seemed to be a common factor.

“Most of our churches are rural, the same as those they already picked,” Mr. Willingham told the Times.

Mr. Ingram said there have been 59 church fires in Alabama in the past five years, including the nine reported in the past few days, and 19 were ruled arsons.

The FBI said it is looking into whether the Bibb County fires constituted civil rights violations under laws covering attacks on religious property.

Morning Star church member Johnny Archibald said smoke was pouring from the church when he arrived early yesterday.

Arsonists “had kicked the door in,” Mr. Archibald said. “Evidently they had set the pulpit on fire and went out the front door.”

“It’s tough to see your church burn down,” said the Rev. James Posey, pastor of Morning Star. “It is your labor of love.”

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