Arson suspected in church fires
Blazes reported in 2 counties; 3 churches destroyed
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(CNN) -- Investigators are trying to determine if a string of fires at churches in central Alabama were started by an arsonist, a state official said Friday.
Three of the churches in Bibb County were destroyed, but no one was injured in the blazes, which broke out between about midnight and 3 a.m. Friday.
"We're clearly investigating these as arson," said Ragan Ingram, assistant state commissioner of the Alabama Department of Insurance, which includes the state fire marshal's office.
In adjacent Chilton County, a Thursday afternoon fire caused significant damage to a building belonging to New Harmony Holiness Church, located west of Clanton, the county seat, said Lt. John Shearon of the Chilton County Sheriff's Office. (Watch as officials explain how they will investigate -- 4:34)
The congregation built a new church building, he said, but used the old building to stockpile clothes, canned goods and other items for donations.
Ingram said the state fire marshal's office is not convinced the Chilton County blaze is related to the ones in Bibb County, although it is under investigation.
The five Bibb County churches are "lined up very near U.S. 82 near Centreville," about 45 miles southwest of Birmingham, said Ingram. Ashby Baptist Church, Pleasant Sabine Church and Rehobeth Baptist Church were destroyed, and Old Union Baptist Church and Antioch Baptist were damaged, he said.
Pleasant Sabine Church has a predominantly black congregation, and the other five are predominantly white, officials said.
The pastor of Ashby Baptist said it his church will be rebuilt. "We're in the process of making plans for this Sunday and beyond," Jim Parker said.
He told WBRC-TV the fire is believed to have started near the pulpit. Video from the scene showed firefighters dousing smoldering brick walls.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has sent investigators to the Bibb County churches, said Jim Cavanaugh, ATF special agent in charge. The FBI said it was also investigating the blazes.
He said there has not been an organized attack on churches in the South since the late 1990s. Some of those blazes -- including those at three black churches in Boligee, Alabama, about 55 miles southwest of Centreville -- have never been solved, he said.
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