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Fire at 10th church in Ala. called arson

BEAVERTON, Ala. (BP)–Another rural Baptist church in Alabama was damaged by fire Feb. 11, increasing to 10 the number of churches in recent days that have been torched by arson.

The latest church, Beaverton Free Will Baptist in Beaverton, was set on fire during the daytime — the first church thus far not set on fire at night. It was severely damaged.

“We have found significant evidence to determine that this fire was deliberately set,” Alabama State Fire Marshal Richard Montgomery said in a statement. “We do not know if the fire is directly related to any of the other fires.”

All of the churches have been Baptist. Five are predominantly black churches, five predominantly white. Four of the 10 churches were Southern Baptist. All the churches are located in a group of closely associated counties west and southwest of Birmingham.

“Our prayers are with the Beaverton Free Will Baptist Church in Lamar County as the congregation must now deal with the aftermath of the destruction of their facilities,” Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said in a statement posted on his weblog. “We pray that the causes of all 10 fires this month will be quickly discovered and anyone responsible apprehended.”

Five church fires were set late Feb. 2, followed by another four late Feb. 6. Authorities believe the crimes may have been committed by two males in their 20s or early 30s who are friends. People with tips should call the Alabama arson tip line at 1-800-654-0775 or the federal tip line at 1-888-ATF-FIRE.

“They’re not youths or teens…. We believe they’re pretty much inseparable. They’re something like bosom buddies,” Eric Kehn of the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency told the Associated Press.

The Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions is assisting the Southern Baptist churches damaged by the fires. In addition, Lance said, the state convention is “partnering with several African American congregations as they seek to rebuild and repair their fire-damaged facilities.”

“[O]ver the course of several decades, our convention has forged very positive relationships with predominantly African-American Baptist denominations in Alabama,” Lance said.

Five of the 10 churches were destroyed. Two of those were Southern Baptist — Rehobeth Baptist in Randolph and Ashby Baptist in Brierfield.

Rehobeth Baptist, which is meeting in a fellowship hall that was not burned, has set up a website with photos, news items and donation information: http://www.rehobethbaptistchurch.com/2006fire.html.

“Rehobeth Baptist Church is not a building, but a family of people,” a statement on the website said. “… Church ties run deep, with several generations of the same families setting their bedrock of faith in Rehobeth Baptist. Despite the loss of our building, Rehobeth Baptist Church is alive and strong.”

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