A suspect has been arrested in connection with a string of “suspicious” fires at historically black churches in Louisiana, authorities announced Wednesday.
Three churches with predominantly African American congregations caught fire over a 10-day span in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, this month, destroying the buildings and sparking fears about a possible racist motive.
U.S. Attorney David Joseph announced the arrest in a statement late Wednesday, saying the unidentified suspect had been taken into state custody.
“A suspect has been identified in connection with the three church burnings in Opelousas, Louisiana, and is in state custody,” Joseph said. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office, ATF, and FBI are working with state and local law enforcement and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the victims and those St. Landry Parish residents affected by these despicable acts.”
Authorities are expected to announce more details about the arrest at a press conference at 10 a.m. local time Thursday. The state’s fire marshal said investigators had identified “suspicious elements” in the case last week.
“There is clearly something happening in this community,” State Fire Marshal Browning said in a statement. “That’s why it’s imperative that the citizens of this community be part of our effort to figure out what it is.”
The blaze at the St. Mary Baptist Church was reported on March 26, followed by Greater Union Baptist Church on April 2 and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church last Thursday. Officials have not determined the exact cause of the fires.
A fourth fire was reported on March 31 at Vivian United Pentecostal Church in Vivian, about 220 miles northwest of St. Landry Parish. The state fire marshal confirmed that blaze was intentionally set inside the church and caused a small amount of damage before it burned itself out.
One local elected official said the fires appeared intentional and the NAACP categorized them as “domestic terrorism.”
“For decades, African-American churches have served as the epicenter of survival and a symbol of hope for many in the African-American community,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said. “As a consequence, these houses of faith have historically been the targets of violence.”
Johnson noted that the fires had occurred within the same time span of another suspicious blaze in Tennessee, where a social justice training center was burned and tagged with anti-Semitic slurs.
“What is happening in Tennessee and Louisiana is domestic terrorism and we must not turn a blind eye to any incident where people are targeted because of the color of their skin and their faith,” Johnson said. “The spike in church burnings in the Southern states is a reflection of emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country.”
ABC News’ Bill Hutchinson contributed to this report.