- Associated Press - Thursday, January 8, 2015

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Federal authorities are investigating church fires in two West Tennessee counties to determine if they were intentionally set.

Michael P. Knight, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Thursday the agency is investigating two church fires - one at a Methodist church in Haywood County and the other at a non-denomination church in Lauderdale County.

Knight says the fires occurred Wednesday. The Haywood County church was a total loss, while the church in Lauderdale suffered significant damage.

“The building is gone. The church isn’t,” pastor John Bonson of Trinity United Methodist told WMC-TV in Memphis. “This is an act of persecution if it’s arson. … That, to me, is one of the worst things other than taking the life of a child.”

Pastor G.K. Ballard of the Cowboy Church in Lauderdale County told WREG-TV in Memphis that his church, which encourages people to come as they are, has been operating about three years. The church sustained about $20,000 in damage, with fire damage along the carpet near the back of the church, the station said.

The ATF is also investigating an attempted fire at a Baptist church in Lauderdale County. Knight says investigators are processing the fire scenes and interviewing congregations and possible witnesses.

Knight says the investigation of the fire scenes will continue for at least two more days.

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