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Last Updated: Monday, 20 February 2006, 12:40 GMT
US church fires baffle investigators
By Matthew Wells
In Alabama

The Dancy First Baptist Church, in rural Pickens County, was supposed to be the venue for a joyous wedding this weekend. Instead, it has become an ash-ridden crime scene.

Charred remains of the Dancy First Baptist Church
The congregation is determined to rebuild as soon as possible
From the outside, nothing seems amiss, but walk through the front door and the bitter smell of charred wood and fabric almost makes you gag.

The church was saved from total destruction earlier this month only because it had a fire alarm. The pastor, Walter Hawkins, says the 80-strong congregation is determined to rebuild as soon as possible, and he has put a special gospel message on the notice board outside: "Forgive them, for they know not what they do."

"This is what we're supposed to do: Forgive, no matter what," Mr Hawkins says.

Just a few miles down the road, the Morning Star Baptist Church, in Boligee, was not so lucky. It was totally burnt to the ground on the same night, by a person - or people - who have left no clues as to who they are, or why they did it.

Like hundreds of other small rural churches across Alabama, it was a vulnerable target. Set back from the road in a secluded glade, it has no-one living nearby and no alarm.


Church burning has been a peripheral part of southern life for generations now, and until the late 1960s when civil rights for blacks finally became law, the phenomenon was a symbol of white power over black powerlessness.

Sheriff Johnny Isaac
We wish that at least they'd contact us and say: 'Okay, we're doing it because of...'
Sheriff Johnny Isaac
In this latest rash of church burnings there have been an equal number of black and white congregations affected: Five white churches, and five black.

The only common denominator is that all the churches belong to southern-based Baptist organisations. Historically divided along racial lines, the local Baptist church is often the oldest and most indispensable building in any community around here.

At the Boligee cafe, the locals are disgusted by what has happened, but also fearful that the attacks may continue.

"In this part of the world, that's our extended family - the people we go to church with," said retired farmer Joseph Lacefield. "It is universally a tragedy."

As I talked to locals and traded theories about who is behind the spate of arsons, the local sheriff, Johnny Isaac, walked in with a posse of deputies. "We certainly don't have the manpower to put somebody at each church," the burly lawman said.

"They've not sent a verbal message or a written message... We wish that at least they'd contact us and say: 'Okay, we're doing it because of...,' you know."

Federal presence

With no firm leads on the perpetrators, some local Baptists are taking it in turns to keep vigil outside their churches - especially during the long nights, when all but one of the attacks took place.

Deacon "Butch" Mayo
Deacon "Butch" Mayo keeps an eye on strange cars
Deacon "Butch" Mayo is keeping an eye on strange cars approaching his place of worship, the Beulah Baptist Church in Eulaw, founded in 1833. After warily asking to see my press credentials, he said there had been a similar spate of church arsons 10 years ago in the area:

"Before, when this rash went on, it was random. But looks like all this is Baptist. We'll do what we can, to preserve what we've got - you know what I mean?"

Because of the huge sensitivity surrounding the crime of church burning in the south, and the genuine outrage felt at the profanity of it, a huge federal agency presence is leading the investigation to catch those responsible.

About 200 officers are involved - but despite hundreds of leads coming in from the public, and thousands of dollars of reward money on the table, there is little prospect of arrests so far.

Similar probes

The special agent in charge of the whole operation is Jim Cavanaugh, from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Jim Cavanaugh, from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
The perpetrators are somewhat ghost-like... We don't know really who they are
Jim Cavanaugh
Special agent
He is a veteran of the continuing fight against shadowy organisations like the white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan, and he also played a major role in apprehending the Washington snipers of 2003, who effectively terrorised the capital's suburbs.

"It's very different of course, there, people were murdered," he said, talking in his makeshift headquarters at the regional airport serving the western Alabama city of Tuscaloosa.

"But, from the standpoint of crimes in a wide-ranging geographic area that are impacting on the community, it's a very similar thing - plus the fact the perpetrators are somewhat ghost-like.

"We don't know really who they are. So the structure and foundation to catch them is similar."

The specialist profilers and agents working the case are confident that they are looking for two white men spotted near several of the churches, driving a black SUV, who harbour some kind of anti-religious grudge.

However, the initial profile of the Washington sniper was spectacularly wrong, and unless the arsonist - or arsonists - strike again, or can be goaded into some kind of dialogue, it is likely they may never be caught.

Coming together

Driving around the quiet rural counties, it is clear that by attacking the sacred and historic heart of small-town life, whoever is responsible has touched a raw nerve that will never go away.

Though black and white Baptist organisations are still largely separate, Gary Farley - the director of missions for the Pickens Baptist Association - is hopeful that a new sense of unity between churches can be broadened and deepened.

"It certainly has stimulated a kind of eager response on the part of churches that I work with, which are predominantly white, to come alongside and partner with the black churches in getting their buildings repaired and back up."

Talking together with the sound of young black gospel singers rehearsing for a choir concert in a nearby hall, he acknowledged that serious divisions of wealth and opportunity are still there, but hopefully, not for ever:

"It's my hope and prayer, that out of this will come a better day really, because we will have worked together, and got to know one another in a real sense."

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