By Tara Law
April 6, 2019

Investigators are looking into a string of “suspicious” fires at historically black churches in Louisiana.

Three churches in St. Landry Parish north of Lafayette, Louisiana have been devastated by fire since March 26, police say. Investigators believe that there is a clear “pattern” linking the fires, which have all taken place at parishes that are part of the 7th District Missionary Baptist Association.

“We’re very cognizant that there’s a problem, and there’s no coincidence that there are three fires,” State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said at a press conference Thursday. The fires started in the middle of the night while the churches were vacant, Browning said. No one was injured.

Police assured a group of African American pastors from nearby congregations that the police will increase patrols and security to ensure that other churches are safe.

Browning warned that it can take several months to determine the cause of fires.

“There certainly is a commonality, and whether it leads to a person, or persons, or groups, we just don’t know,” Browning said.

Police are also working to determine if the fires are connected to a March 31 fire at a Vivian United Pentecostal Church, which is about a four hour’s drive north of St. Landry Parish, according to the Lafayette Daily Advertiser.

Since the 1950s, black churches and congregations in the American south have been the target of vandalism, arson, bombings and other attacks by white-supremacist terrorists. In June 2015, a white supremacist murdered nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically African American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Browning said that police will work to determine if the case fits the criteria for a hate crime. He added that churches are popular targets for arsonists for different reasons, such as a desire to cover up a burglary.

He said that if the fire was caused by arson, it is also an attack on “God’s home.”

“If you’re going to turn to the House of God, turn to it for resurrection,” Browning said. “Turn to it for forgiveness.”

Write to Tara Law at tara.law@time.com.

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