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Congregations on edge after Texas church fires

Eight Texas churches barely 150 miles apart have caught fire since New Year's Day, putting pastors and congregations on edge and on guard wondering whether theirs is next.
Image: Firefighters put out a fire at the Russell Memorial United Methodist Church
A fire destroys the sanctuary of the Russell Memorial United Methodist Church in Wills Point, Texas, on Thursday, one of a string of fires in east Texas.Mike Fuentes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Eight Texas churches barely 150 miles apart have caught fire since New Year's Day, putting pastors and congregations on edge and on guard wondering whether theirs is next.

Authorities determined seven of those fires were intentionally set and they are investigating one that broke out Thursday as a possible arson. There have been no reported injuries or arrests, and federal officials aren't saying whether there's a connection.

Most people in these parts can't help but think they are.

"I think everybody is expecting more of these, to tell you the truth," said pastor David Mahfood, whose Baptist church in Tyler was destroyed in a Jan. 16 fire. "I think the worst is probably behind Tyler, but I'd worry about other cities."

Six of the seven arsons were just nine days apart, sending many congregations in east Texas scurrying to install security systems and prompting volunteers to keep close eyes on church properties from dusk to dawn. Federal and local authorities have released scant details and say they need more information.

"These things are painstakingly slow because a lot of evidence is lost in fire scenes," said Tom Crowley, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spokesman. "They're still working it, but we could use more leads."

The fires have struck a region where Christian stations fill the radio dial and an area newspaper runs a Bible verse on the front page every day. All seven churches varied in size and denomination.

Wondering why
Some were Baptist. One was a red-bricked Christian Scientist's church nestled among stately homes. Another was a nondenominational church on the outskirts of town.

"The shock of it, it's so outside the norm," said Lloyd McCaskill, pastor of a church in Tyler that has given Mahfood's congregation a temporary home. "To try to get into the mindset, why would someone want to do this?"

Athens was the site of the first arson Jan. 1, and two more churches burned 10 days later in that town of about 12,000. After that, blazes blackened two churches about 35 miles away in Tyler. Days later, a church in Temple went up in flames, followed by one in Lindale, just north of Tyler. Thursday's fire was less than 50 miles away in Wills Point.

Map locates sites of several church fires being investigated by federal and local investigators for possible arson.S. Chen / AP

Two earlier fires at churches in the area came under suspicion, but authorities haven't determined whether arson was the cause.

Police have increased patrols near churches. In Tyler, a city of nearly 100,000 about 100 miles from Dallas, authorities also are sending fire trucks on burglary calls. Tyler fire Chief Neal Franklin would only say it was a precautionary move.

Some residents have moved swiftly to protect their churches.

Lloyd Young, who owns a small security alarm company in Tyler, has been updating churches' existing systems or loaning them what little extra equipment he has. He said he's helped about a dozen.

Overnight in church
Young also was among those who stayed overnight at his church.

"The general feeling is it's too fresh to just let our guard down," Young said.

Authorities aren't factoring race as a reason for the arsons, but Mahfood considers them a hate crime.

"I don't really think you can look at this devastation and not realize this has hate as its impetus," he said as he stood in front of the charred rubble of his church. "We have probably experienced every emotion possible."

Mahfood said he plans to rebuild his church. Some congregations are still figuring out what to do.

"The church is pretty strongly sewn in with the community here," Mahfood said. "If you're not a churchgoer, you're related to somebody who is. So everybody is affected."