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Six Fires at St. Louis Churches Under Investigation, Reward Offered

The six churches are within about three miles of one another and all except the latest burnt church are predominantly African American.
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Investigators want to know who sparked fires at six predominantly African-American churches in northern St. Louis over the last two weeks.

Damage from the latest blaze was discovered on the front doors of Ebenezer Lutheran Church on Sunday morning, according to the ATF, which is offering a $2,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the party responsible for the fires.

The previous five blazes were also set at the front doors of churches, said St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson.

All six churches are "have a predominantly African-American following (and are) within predominantly African-American neighborhoods," St. Louis Fire Department spokesman Garon Mosby told NBC News. The six churches are within about three miles of one another, he said.

Mosby said no one has been injured in any of the fires.

The first fire was set on Oct. 8 at Bethel Non-Denominational Church, just off of West Florissant Ave. in Jennings, a city that borders Ferguson. St. Louis County Police Department spokesman Shawn McGuire said the church sustained about $250 in damages.

The next fire was set two days later at New Northside Baptist Church, which is about a mile-and-a-half away from Bethel. Subsequent fires were set on Oct. 14 at St. Augustine Catholic Church; Oct. 15 at the New Testament Church of Christ; and Oct. 17 at the New Life Missionary Baptist Church, according to the ATF.

"It is only a matter of time before someone is injured or harmed as a result of this fire-setting activity, and we ask that the community continue to maintain vigilance, take note of their environments, and assist us in identifying this offender," the ATF said in a statement.

Leaders and members of St. Louis churches also asked residents to keep a watchful eye on the churches in their neighborhoods.

"We are praying for whoever the perpetrator is," said New Northside Baptist Church Rev. Rodrick Burton. "We have forgiven them, but we want it to stop."

"Whoever this is, you have our attention," said Pastor Renita Lamkin, from St. Johns African Methodist Episcopal Church. "Next time you come onto the church land, don’t stop at the door. Come on in, and know that there is a body of Christ waiting to love you."

The ATF statement said investigators believe that "this fire-setting activity is meant to send a message" but did not say what that message might be, and an ATF spokeswoman would not comment further due to the ongoing investigation. But The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on Monday released a statement expressing "grave concern about the continuing rash of fires set at predominantly African-American churches."

The ADL acknowledged that a racial motive has not been confirmed but said "the fear and intimidation in the African-American community is substantial and must be validated."

"This is a very unique region right now in our post-Ferguson world," said St. Louis ADL regional director Karen Aroesty, referring to the riots and protests that followed the August 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown.

"These are big, big issues that require a lot of very thoughtful allies coming together, and that atmosphere needs to be supported and empowered so that it can be congratulated for all the successes, no matter how small," Aroesty told NBC News. "And when things happen like this, I get concerned that we take a couple of steps back from pushing on that hard work."