Alabama Church Fires Under Investigation Federal and state officials are investigating a series of church fires in rural Alabama. Arson is suspected in the nine church fires that have occurred since Friday. Brett Tannehill of Alabama Public Radio reports.

Alabama Church Fires Under Investigation

Alabama Church Fires Under Investigation

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Federal and state officials are investigating a series of church fires in rural Alabama. Arson is suspected in the nine church fires that have occurred since Friday. Brett Tannehill of Alabama Public Radio reports.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. In Alabama teams of federal, state and county investigators are looking into the burning of nine Baptist churches. Arson is suspected in most of the cases. Alabama Governor Bob Riley is visiting some of the sites today. Brett Tannehill of Alabama Public Radio reports.

BRETT TANNEHILL: So far, investigators say, seven of the nine fires are the work of arsonists. They are still investigating the cause of two fires. U.S. Attorney Alice Martin says the perpetrators could face federal charges under the Church Arson Prevention Act.

ALICE MARTIN: Federal law says whoever intentionally defaces, damages or destroys any religious real property because of race, color or ethnic characteristics of any individual associated with that property can be punishable.

TANNEHILL: The congregation has about 100 members. The original church was thought to have been built by former slaves during the Reconstruction era. The structure that was burned Tuesday was built in 1999.

ANNIE HODGES GUNNER: Oh I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. I said, no, not our church, too. I can't believe it. And so I got red and everything and my niece had called me. And we came on down here. And she cried and hollered all the way. She was so upset.

TANNEHILL: Annie Hodges Gunner has been the church's secretary for 60 years.

HODGES GUNNER: We just going to stick together and praise the Lord and pray for those people and hope that, you know, they'll have a change of heart.

TANNEHILL: Despite the attack, the Reverend Walter Hawkins, pastor of the church, described the surrounding area as a rural loving community. And he says neither the fire nor the people who set it will change anything.

WALTER HAWKINS: We pray for them. We pray for everyone and we have no hard feelings for them, and I tell everyone that they burned the building but not the church because the church is in our hearts.

TANNEHILL: Dickens County Sheriff David Apston(ph) says they are hard at work putting together the clues.

DAVID APSTON: It upsets the community any time you attack a worship, house of worship. And we want to get to the bottom of it, and find out who's behind it.

TANNEHILL: Authorities suspect more than one arsonist may be involved because of multiple origins of fire inside some churches. Local officials say they've increased patrols and are asking the public to be vigilant. Meanwhile members of the affected churches are looking for other places to worship. Dancy Baptist's congregation is being taken in by some nearby churches until repairs to its building can be completed. Alpha Insurance, which insures most of the churches burned, has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. For NPR News, I'm Brett Tannehill in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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