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Four Black Belt churches torched Tuesday

A team of investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms waited outside the remains of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Boligee Tuesday morning, waiting for the ashes to cool so their work could begin.

Only a set of cement stairs remained of the 94-year-old church. They once lead into the sanctuary, but the structure Morning Star’s congregation once called a church simply smoldered in the morning sun.

Four churches in west Alabama were torched early Tuesday morning. Dancy First Baptist Church near Aliceville and Spring Valley Baptist near Gainesville were damaged by the fires. Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church near Boligee and Galilee Baptist in Panola burned to the ground.

“It’s tough to see your church burn down,” the Rev. James Posey, pastor of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, said. “It is your labor of love.”

The fires followed a rash of five blazes in Bibb County Friday morning.

Greene County Sheriff Johnny Isaac said a deputy had ridden by Morning Star Baptist around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday.

“We had beefed up our patrol because of the Bibb County situation,” he said. “A little over four hours later, we got a call that there was a fire.”

Tuesday afternoon, investigators from the ATF, FBI, Alabama Bureau of Investigation and state Fire Marshall’s office combed through what remained of the four houses of worship. They found “some similarities in the crimes that make us believe they are connected” to the Bibb County blazes, Senior ATF Special Agent Austin Banks said.

After confirming that each of the west Alabama fires was the work of arsonists, Banks said the task force is sending evidence from each scene to the ATF laboratory in Atlanta.

Banks said authorities are searching for “a dark-colored SUV occupied by two white males,” which was seen in the area of all nine fires.

Though the congregations of all four churches burned Tuesday were predominately black, Banks said, “there is no indication that this is racially motivated.” Four of the five churches torched last week were predominately white. All nine were Baptist churches, though not all belonged to the Southern Baptist Convention.

“(Our church) didn’t burn down because of anything we did to anybody,” Posey said.

The pastor said his congregation would likely meet Wednesday “to talk about what we are going to do.” But the Morning Star would not set simply because its building had burned, Posey said.

“We can’t let this stand in our way,” he said. “We have to move forward.”

Corey Ealons, a spokesperson for the U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, expressed the congressman’s concern that the arsonists’ campaign had moved into his district.

“Regardless of whether these crimes are racially motivated,” Davis said, “they are hate crimes.”

Roy Willingham, mayor of Emelle, learned of the fire around 7:30 Tuesday morning. Spring Valley Baptist Church, which was damaged in the rash of blazes, is near Emelle, but technically falls within Gainesville’s fire district.

The call was to ensure that Emelle’s fire department was standing by … just in case.

“Most of our churches are rural, the same as those they already picked,” he said, alluding to the five country churches burned in Bibb County over the weekend. “(The churches) were started where the people were, but the people move, and folks attend church, but the buildings are kind of left out there. It raises your awareness.”

The four were at west Alabama locations near the Mississippi line about 10 to 20 miles from each other. All were in sparsely populated areas off rural roads, similar to those in Bibb County, just south of Birmingham.

Johnny Archibald, a church member who lives near the church, told The Associated Press he was alerted by a school bus driver and arrived about 6:45 a.m,, just as smoke was pouring out of windows and flames were visible near the pulpit. He said it was clear the fire had been set.

“They had kicked the door in,” he said. “Evidently they had set the pulpit on fire and went out the front door.”

He said he immediately thought of the Bibb County church fires.

“I don’t know what’s going on. It’s just sickness,” he said.

Davis said the support of elected leaders should extend beyond encouraging the investigative measures.

“Our hearts go out to the pastors, families and communities impacted by this tragedy,” he said, “and we each should offer a prayer that they be comforted during this trying time.”

– News Editor Rick Couch and The Associated Press contributed to this report.