0

Arsonist returns: Third attempt to burn down church delays opening
Third attempt to burn down church delays opening

DULUTH - Someone is apparently hell-bent on keeping a Duluth church from opening.

In the last 10 months, the under-construction Zion Korean United Methodist Church of Atlanta, located just within the border of incorporated Duluth, has fallen victim to arson three times. Officials believe all three blazes were ignited in or near the church's sanctuary.

None of the fires have inflicted much structural damage, but each has rattled and enraged congregation leaders who expected to host a long-awaited grand opening this weekend.

"My heart is crying. It's not right," said associate pastor David Yun. "It's not only against the Korean community - it's against God."

The first attempt at burning down the more than $2 million, 20,000-square-foot church came in August last year, fire officials said. The second attempt - caused by an accelerant lit near a construction lift - happened before dawn on Feb. 12.

The third try, which came about 5 a.m. Wednesday, was the most insulting, church leaders said.

Black graffiti spelling the word "Satan" and several upside-down crosses dotted doors and stacked stone along the three-story structure's rear. Inside, carpet in the sanctuary - a cavernous space highlighted with soaring stained glass - was a soggy mess. The basement, also swamped, bore the smell of fresh paint and gasoline.

Fire officials said an alarm company alerted the church's senior pastor to smoke in the building at 5:04 a.m. The pastor called 911, but the blaze had been squelched by a sprinkler system by the time fire crews arrived, said Fire Department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge. It caused minimal burn damage to the sanctuary.

The church was closed at the time of the fire, and church officials said no one should have been on the property.

"All three (fires) are being investigated as acts of arson and are believed to be related," Rutledge said. "Whoever's doing this is pretty bold, and we want to stop it before someone gets hurt."

The 3258 Ga. Highway 120 church, when open, will serve a congregation of 400 that stretches across metro Atlanta, Yun said. The opening planned for Saturday has been postponed a week, he said.

Whoever has tried to burn the church down has not stolen anything. Rutledge said investigators have found no signs of forced entry in any case.

The church's construction began in 2007 and has been funded by parishioner contributions. Yun said the repeated setbacks have only fortified his will to make the church a success.

"We're not going to stop," he said. "We have God's calling. We're going to continue to press on."

Yun said he isn't aware that arsonists or vandals have targeted other Korean churches in the Duluth area.

Gwinnett fire investigators are being assisted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a common practice with fires involving churches. No suspects have been identified.

Georgia Arson Control Inc. is offering up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction in the case. Rutledge urged anyone with information to contact the Georgia Arson Control Hotline at 800-282-5804 or Gwinnett County Fire Department investigators at 678-518-4890.

"We hope that will spawn some information," Rutledge said of the reward. "We want to bring this to a close for the church staff and parishioners."