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Arson suspected in 2 more TX church fires

TYLER, Texas (BP)–The number of suspicious fires at churches in East Texas has climbed to seven as federal investigators join state and local authorities in seeking clues to two blazes in Tyler, Texas.

The latest fires were at the Tyland Baptist Church and the First Church of Christ, Scientist, both in Tyler. Tyland is the third Southern Baptist church to burn in what investigators believe is a string of arsons. Both fires took place the weekend of Jan. 16-17.

On Jan. 12, Lake Athens Baptist Church in Athens, about 65 miles southeast of Dallas, was one of two churches in that town heavily damaged by what investigators believe were arson fires set in the early morning hours. The week before that, another church near Athens was apparently torched.

In Van Zandt County, located between Athens and Tyler, arson is also suspected in two fires set in early January, one at the Little Hope Baptist Church in Canton on New Year’s Day.

Authorities in the three affected counties are being aided in their investigation by the Texas state fire marshal’s office and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Authorities first suspected burglary as a motive at the Athens churches, said Athens Assistant Police Chief Rodney Williams, but the investigation is ongoing.

Tyland Baptist Church Pastor David E. Mahfood posted a statement on the church’s website: “Dear Friends, as most of you know, our beloved church building was consumed by fire on Saturday evening, January 16. We grieve the loss of church home, the place that we loved and shared so many memories with our church family. It was a very special place to all of us, and our emotions at this time are varied and many.

“Yet as deep as our sadness is our conviction is that our God is a mighty God, and that He is able to prevail through any adversity. We are confident that He is by our side as we come to grips with this devastating loss, and we know He will embolden us to move forward. We also take great comfort in His Word, which says:

“‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.'”

The Tyler religious community offered condolences and support as congregational leaders met to discuss security and other issues.

“We’ve always had good security at Marvin,” John Robbins, pastor of Marvin United Methodist Church in Tyler, whose church just recently completed a remodeling project, told the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “But we’ve hired more security already to keep (the church building) safe 24 hours until this perpetrator is caught.”

Rabbi Neal Katz of Tyler’s Congregation Beth El told the paper the Jewish community has been “a target” for centuries.

“That gives us certain empathy for others being victimized,” Katz said. “When people are violated in one place, that affects all of us.”

John Green, pastor of Lake Athens Baptist Church in Athens, told the Southern Baptist TEXAN that despite an estimated $500,000 damage to its auditorium in the Jan. 12 fire, “Our hearts are full and our spirits are encouraged. We believe God is going to bring something good out of this.”

Federal investigators were offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the fires. Anyone with information may contact the Tyler, Texas ATF office at 903-590-1475.
Jerry Pierce is managing editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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