Authorities investigate ‘suspicious’ fires at black churches

Firefighters and fire investigators respond to a fire at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church Thursday, April 4, 2019, in Opelousas, La. Authorities in southern Louisiana are investigating a string of "suspicious" fires at three African American churches in recent days. Fire Marshal H. "Butch" Browning said it wasn't clear whether the fires in St. Landry Parish are connected and he declined to get into specifics of what the investigation had yielded so far but described the blazes as "suspicious." (Leslie Westbrook/The Advocate via AP)

OPELOUSAS, La. (AP) — Authorities in southern Louisiana are investigating a string of "suspicious" fires at three African American churches in recent days.

During a news conference Thursday, Fire Marshal H. "Butch" Browning said it wasn't clear whether the fires in St. Landry Parish are connected and he declined to get into specifics of what the investigation had yielded so far but described the blazes as "suspicious."

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"If you're going to turn to a house of god, turn to it for resurrection," he said.

State Fire Marshal's spokeswoman Ashley Rodrigue says all three churches have African American congregations. She said all possibilities on the cause and potential motives are being investigated.

The ATF and the FBI also are involved in the investigation, Browning said. He said that more than 40 people from the marshal's office are working on the investigation, which he described as "extremely active right now."

The first fire occurred March 26 at the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, and the second happened Tuesday when the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas caught fire.

Then Thursday morning the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas caught fire.

The churches were vacant at the time of the fires, and no one was injured.

Pastors from 10 area churches gathered Thursday to discuss the fires and show support for the affected churches, The Advocate newspaper reported.

The pastors said each of the churches was well over 100 years old.

The Rev. Harry Richard of Greater Union Baptist Church told the newspaper that he doesn't want people to panic.

"I don't know who's doing it or why they're doing it, but I don't want to be the one to inject race into it," he said.

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