By Kevin Pearcey
Tuesday, February 7, 2006 5:49 PM CST
In a story that is making national news, at least five rural Alabama churches were set on fire in Bibb County last week and four more were burned on Tuesday morning.
“I'm just afraid it's people trying to destroy the church,” said Watson Wasden, minister at Antioch West Baptist Church, of the fires. “If it was just a certain church, you could say that it was someone mad with the people in that church for some reason. But being a group of churches - and it could be some other reason - but it appears it's people fighting Christianity.”
Allen Stephenson, minister of First Baptist Church in Georgiana, said his heart goes out to the congregations affected by fires, especially the elderly members.
“The church holds so much significance to them, because many of them have gone to that church for all of their lives,” he said. “Just like many, I'm at a loss for words. It's one thing to be an arsonist, but you have to have some nerve to burn a church down.”
Stephenson feels the person - or persons - responsible are psychologically disturbed individuals.
“Of course with the fire and the attacks on the churches, you always have the specter of Satanism,” he said.
In Bibb County, almost all of the churches were Baptist in faith. Three were destroyed outright, while two suffered extensive damage. Chief Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Weems told the Associated Press that the fires were started “as fast as they could drive from one location to the next,” alluding that the blazes could be the work of a group of arsonists.
Special agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives descended on Bibb County, approximately 25 miles south of Birmingham, to aid in the investigation.
“The way to solve these cases is to put experts and resources on the scene and conduct an aggressive investigation,” said ATF Nashville Special Agent in Charge James Cavanaugh. “Church fires have a special impact on the communities where they're located and whoever is responsible for these blazes has no respect for any symbols of good.”
The ATF has offered $5,000 for information pertaining to the church fires. The state has matched that offer with a $5,000 reward also.
“I am outraged that anyone would deliberately set fire to churches. I want the people of the affected congregations to know that the state will do all that's possible to find those responsible and bring them to justice,” Gov. Bob Riley said. “My office has been in contact with local authorities and the state is doing everything it can to assist with the investigation. I also want the members of these churches to know that our prayers are with them as we explore ways to assist their congregations.”
Riley visited the site of the Bibb County fires on Saturday.
Tuesday's fires happened at churches in Sumter, Pickens and Greene counties. At least one of those churches, also Baptist, was destroyed.