NEW: A Fire Department spokeswoman says a hate crime is "one of many possibilities"
Authorities say a fire at Briar Creek Baptist Church was arson
The pastor says the predominantly black church forgives whoever was behind the blaze
Who deliberately set a blaze that devoured a predominantly black Baptist church in Charlotte, North Carolina? And was it a hate crime?
That’s something investigators say they’re trying to find out Thursday, a day after a fire at Briar Creek Baptist Church. After combing the scene of the fire, they’ve determined it was arson and are searching for suspects, the Charlotte Fire Department said.
“At this time, investigators have no direct evidence that the fire was a hate crime,” Charlotte Fire Department Spokeswoman Cynthia Robbins Shah-Khan told CNN. “That is one of many possibilities, and investigators are following the evidence to determine who is responsible for the fire.”
Pastor Mannix Kinsey told CNN affiliate WBTV that about 85 people normally worship at the church, most of whom are African-American. Kinsey said he’s praying that the fire wasn’t a hate crime.
No matter what the motivation was for setting fire to the church, Kinsey told WBTV he had a message for whoever was behind the blaze.
“Honestly, I can speak for this church,” Kinsey said, “that we’ve already forgiven them and we want to move forward. And we are hoping this is an opportunity for Christ to show himself in their hearts.”
Neighbors in this neighborhood east of the uptown business district told WBTV they don’t believe the fire was a hate crime.
“There’s no hate,” Sam Triantis said. “Here, we have 200 nationalities in this neighborhood, and we get along just fine.”
A 911 caller first reported the fire early Wednesday morning.
“It’s really big,” the caller said, warning that an apartment complex was near the building.
Kinsey told WBTV he was amazed to see such large flames when he arrived at the scene and feared the church would be destroyed.
“But thank God, the damage that was done wasn’t as bad as we thought it could be,” he said.
Officials say the fire caused more than $250,000 in damage to the building.
CNN’s Lauren Leslie contributed to this report.