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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

June 18, 2019   |   Ithaca, NY

Opinion

National Recap: Louisiana church fires suspected as arson

Investigators announced April 9 that they believed the fires that consumed three historically black churches in Louisiana were intentionally set. With the first fire occurring March 26, three predominantly black churches have been burned in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish over the course of 10 days.

The most recent of the church burnings was Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana, on April 4. Prior to that was the fire at Greater Union Baptist Church in the same town April 2 and the fire at St. Mary’s Baptist Church in Pont Barre, Louisiana, on March 26. All three churches were over 100 years old.

Federal authorities joined in the investigation of the fires April 6, following the governor’s request for help investigating the incidents. The state’s fire department, the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are all currently assisting in the investigation. Gov. John Bel Edwards called upon the state fire marshal and federal authorities to investigate the fires due to the severity of the potential crime.

“Churches are sacred places, and no one should fear for their safety in their house of worship,” Edwards said. “And no one should be concerned that their house of worship would be destroyed.”

State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said that while investigating the fires he found them to be suspicious and that they could indicate a series of attacks within the community.

“We believe these three fires are suspicious,” Browning said. “We are falling short of talking about what caused the fires, falling short of saying how they are related, however cognizant that there is a problem and no coincidence that there were three fires.”

At this moment in the investigation, church congregants are waiting for investigators to determine the cause or motivation behind the fires. To prevent further burnings, the investigation has reported that some pastors in Louisiana’s southern region are sleeping at their churches.

There was no one harmed in the three fires, but the burning of the churches has sparked memories of past attacks on black churches and communities. Organizations such as the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union have already labeled the burnings as disturbing acts of domestic terrorism.

Pastor Freddie Jack, president of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, said he suspects the fires at the churches were coordinated attacks.

“I feel our district was being targeted because all three of the churches were in our district,” Jack said. “At first, we thought it might have been an electrical problem, but then when the second church burning … occurred, I realized it was our sister church. … Then, two days later, the third occurred, so, at least [to] me, [it] made me think that we’re being targeted.”

Julius Alsandor, mayor of Opelousas, Louisiana, said the church burnings were a hideous display of prejudice.“The relevance and the impact on the people in the surrounding communitiesand especially the congregation of each of these churches it’s hurtful, and there may be some fear that is being exhibited by those who are a part of the three churches,” Alsandor said.

Meredith Burke can be reached at mburke@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @meredithsburke