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Arson Fire Heavily Damages Oregon Church

June 20, 1996

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ A predominantly black church was heavily damaged early today in an arson fire, the latest in a series of suspicious blazes at churches around the country.

Across the country, two black men charged with arson in the burning last month of a black church in North Carolina appeared in court today. A further hearing was scheduled for July 1. The county sheriff declined to discuss a possible motive.

Portland Fire Bureau spokesman Rob Ware said investigators were not revealing what evidence they had that pointed to arson. Investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were on the scene.

The fire at the Immanuel Christian Fellowship broke out shortly before 3 a.m. Flames destroyed the sanctuary in the wooden building, where investigators found a broken side window. No one was hurt.

``It’s just toast,″ pastor Mark Strong said.

The church serves a congregation of about 150 people in a predominantly black neighborhood just north of the Willamette River. Strong said about 70 percent of the congregation is black. He said the church recently changed its name from Immanuel Free Methodist Church.

In North Carolina, Rodney Bullock, 21, and Curtis Gilbert Jr., 32, were charged Wednesday with burning a building they were remodeling at Mount Tabor Baptist Church in Cerro Gordo, about 20 miles from Whiteville in the southeastern part of the state.

Both men were released Wednesday, Gilbert on $20,000 bond and Bullock on $10,000 bond. At today’s hearing, Gilbert asked for a court-appointed attorney; Bullock has hired his own lawyer. A probable cause hearing was set for July 1 in Whiteville.

Sheriff Jimmy Ferguson said an anonymous tip the day after the May 23 fire led authorities to the suspects. Ferguson said Gilbert was a contractor hired to remodel the former school on the church grounds and Bullock was his employee. He declined to discuss a possible motive.

``It was intentionally set, and that’s a tragedy,″ said A.R. Stevens of the State Bureau of Investigation. ``But there was no racial motive involved.″

In neighboring Robeson County, authorities ruled out race as a motive in the arson of the largely black Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. Volunteer firefighter Billy Shawn Baxley, 17, who is white, was arrested Tuesday and confessed to starting the blaze, said William Bryan, assistant fire chief.

There have been more than 40 fires at predominantly black churches across the South since January 1995, raising fears of racism. President Clinton has mobilized federal agencies to help in the investigations.

In the North, a fire of undetermined origin damaged a racially mixed church in Portland, Ore., early today. Arson investigators were called to the Immanuel Free Methodist Church but Fire Bureau spokesman Rob Ware declined to speculate that the fire was set.

Investigators found a broken window on the side of the church but did not immediately say what caused it to break. The church serves a congregation of about 150.

On Wednesday:

_ In Berlin, Md., a fire at 100-year-old St. John’s United Methodist Church was traced to a kitchen electrical socket and ruled accidental.

_ Alabama Gov. Fob James released statistics showing Alabama has had 38 suspicious church fires since 1990, with arrests made in 20 of them. In those 20 fires _ eight at black churches and 12 at white churches _ race apparently was not a motive, he said.

_ The National Council of Churches, the American Jewish Committee and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops announced they would try to raise $4 million to help rebuild burned black churches. Contributions already have been pouring in and a group of foundations plan to announce major grants today, the groups said.

_ An Atlanta security company, Masada Security, said it would donate $200 smoke-detector systems and provide six months of free monitoring for churches in the area. Also in Georgia, ministers of some of Atlanta’s largest churches said they plan to provide 24-hour unarmed guards, called Peace Keepers, to deter vandalism and arson at churches.

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