BETHESDA, Md. — Police have charged a teen after two fires broke out at two separate churches and another church was vandalized along the same road in Bethesda, Maryland.
Officials initially said the fires were being investigated as arson. According to Montgomery County Fire Public Information Officer Pete Piringer, a teen has been arrested and charged. He went on to confirm that the case will be going through juvenile court and there is no active threat currently to the community.
The first incident occurred Saturday, July 9, around 1:30 a.m., fire crews responded to a fire at the North Bethesda United Methodist Church on 10100 Old Georgetown Road, according to officials.
When fire crews arrived at the church, they found multiple areas consisting of small fires and quickly extinguished the flames.
Piringer initially said in a tweet that damages were minimal and estimated at around $1,000.
Authorities believed that the church was targeted.
About the same time, less than a mile apart, officers received a report of another church that had been vandalized at the Wildwood Baptist Church at 10200 Old Georgetown Road.
Police found debris, broken wood, and stones scattered across the property.
On the next day, Sunday, July 10, another fire erupted in the early morning, inside the St. Jane Frances De Chantal Parish, according to MCFRS.
Fire crews responded just after 2 a.m. to an alarm inside the church. Once inside, they found the fire burning in the main section of the church.
Officials say the fire was quickly extinguished thanks to the 66 firefighters who responded to the scene.
Piringer tweeted that the "fire involved several pews in the main church area." No injuries were reported.
Sunday morning mass was relocated to another location on the church campus - Christopher Hall Gymnasium.
The mass was scheduled to take place at 8 a.m. on Sunday, according to the Church's website.
According to the church's Facebook page, St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish is a Catholic church and "a community of 1,900 families, whose purpose is to enable its members."
“When we’re tested by fire, literally in this case, our resolve and our bond are only strengthened,” Patricia Zapor, the Director of Media Relations for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, said.
St. Jane Frances de Chantal Catholic Church didn’t hold mass in their sanctuary Sunday after an early morning fire, but worship happened a few steps down in their school gym.
“They took the Stations of the Cross down from the wall. They shredded some books, they attempted to start a fire in several pews, apparently. The fire detection system triggered, and the fire department was here rather quickly,” Zapor said.
It appears as though vandals attempted to cause inestimable damage to the two churches but their attempts were ultimately unsuccessful, Diane Walsch-Barberesi of North Bethesda United Methodist Church said, and have only fueled their beliefs.
“Nothing has been stopped. We've continued our services; we've continued the activities that we do for our community. Nothing has stopped us because we believe in God's love,” Walsch-Barberesi said.
Ken Ow has been a member of this United Methodist church for 42 years. He doesn’t understand why anyone would attempt to cause destruction at their church, but instead of anger, he says his faith has compelled him to pray instead.
“We will love you, we will help the hurt. Please. We pray for you, we love you, come talk to us,”
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich spoke out about the incidents Monday.
“Attacks on houses of worship in Montgomery County are completely unacceptable," he said. "The criminal activity that took place over the weekend does not represent the values of inclusion and equity that we are striving for in the communities of this County. We pride ourselves on our diversity of religious communities. A hateful incident against one community impacts us all. Hate in any form has no home in Montgomery County."
Montgomery County released a statement on the rash of church vandalism and suspected arsons, as well.
“Attacks on houses of worship in Montgomery County are completely unacceptable. The criminal activity that took place over the weekend does not represent the values of inclusion and equity that we are striving for in the communities of this County. We pride ourselves on our diversity of religious communities. A hateful incident against one community impacts us all. My thoughts are with the leaders and congregants of St. Jane de Chantal Catholic Parish, North Bethesda United Methodist Church, and Wildwood Baptist Church during this very difficult and concerning to the institutions and the families they serve. We have reached out to each of the churches to see if they need any assistance to help them during this time."
Investigators believe all three fires and vandalisms are connected. Anyone with any information is asked to call the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services Arson tip line at 240-277-2263.
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