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Fires at Jehovah’s Witness halls in Washington state puzzle authorities

A fire at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Lacey, Wash., was intentionally set early Dec. 7, 2018, according to authorities. Photo courtesy of Thurston County Sheriff's Office

(RNS) — A pre-dawn fire engulfed a Jehovah’s Witnesses worship center near Olympia, Wash., last week, the fifth deliberately set blaze targeting the denomination in the area in nine months.

The series of arson attacks, which investigators believe are related, began in March when fire was set to Kingdom Halls in Olympia and the close-in suburb of Tumwater on the same day. Four months later the Olympia Kingdom Hall was set ablaze again, destroying the building this time.

In August, a Kingdom Hall in Yelm, about a half-hour drive from Olympia, was burned. Earlier this year that same building was peppered with nearly three dozen rifle rounds, causing $10,000 damage.

Jason Chudy, public information officer for the Seattle office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said no one has been charged in the crimes, though surveillance video has captured footage of a suspect.

“At this point, until we’re able talk to a suspect to determine what the motivation was, it’s hard to determine if these are hate crimes,” said Chudy.

There are approximately 33,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Washington state and 163 Kingdom Halls, the denomination’s name for its worship centers.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses work hard to be a force for good in their community, so violent acts like this are difficult to comprehend,” David A. Semonian, a U.S. spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, said in an email.

A March 2018 fire at a Kingdom Hall in Olympia, Wash. Photo courtesy of Olympia Fire Department

Though saddened, local Witnesses say they’re grateful no one has been hurt and agree that buildings can be replaced. All of the attacks have occurred before dawn.

Bill Warner of the West Lacey Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses said that since the attacks began, congregations have stepped up security, particularly when buildings are occupied. Doors remain locked and guests are being screened via video.

“Obviously, we try to do all we can to protect the safety of our members while we meet together to worship,” he said. “As far as providing security while the building is unoccupied or during the night, we do have surveillance cameras but we will not jeopardize the lives or safety of our brothers by providing 24-hour security simply to save a building.”

Last year the Supreme Court in Russia declared Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist group, a move that was condemned by the nonprofit Human Rights Watch.

“The Jehovah’s Witnesses are simply peacefully exercising their right to freedom of religion,” Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an August statement. “The Jehovah’s Witness faith is not an extremist organization, and authorities should stop this religious persecution of its worshipers now.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted about the Lacey fire, calling the attacks abhorrent.

“The freedom to worship is a right that should be protected for every person in our country,” he wrote.

In a statement to Religion News Service, the governor added, “As a society we should not let any forms of discrimination or hatred stand.”

Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza couldn’t be reached for comment, but earlier he told KOMO-TV that he couldn’t wrap his mind around the attacks.

“Why is this specific religion being targeted? Why are these churches being targeted? What are they doing that is so wrong and oppressive?” the sheriff said.

In a news conference over the weekend, Snaza said the Sheriff’s Department and ATF are working together to solve the serial arsonist case, and he called on the community for help. Authorities are offering up to $36,000 in rewards for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

About the author

Tracy Simmons

Tracy Simmons serves as the editor and community manager of Spokane Faith & Values.

26 Comments

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  • Let’s put in John Snaza’s total commentary, rather than the sanitary part only.

    Yesterday, on CNN, Sheriff Snaza said: “… it’s sickening to think of someone attacking houses of worship out of “some sort of animosity towards any religion.” It could be an unfortunate turn of phrase, or given the postings of certain people on These Very Pages, it could have been a wee bit of atheist bashing. There is every bit of evidence that the arson and gunshots are domestic terrorism, no evidence at all that it had a thing to do with atheism. In fact, given that so far as is known, this was all attacks on the JW’s and no one else, atheists are the last place anyone should look.

    Let’s look first at a disgruntled, and now former, JW. In almost any murder investigations, that were not clearly random acts of violence, the first line of questioning is directed the people who knew the victim: spouse, and then towards family, and then towards other people.

    As a second line of investigation, just google “are the Jehovah’s witnesses Christians?” The wealth of material denouncing them as not– excellent fodder for The Only True Christians (TM) — would indicate that it was far more likely a Christian.
    A third line of investigation should be race. It would not surprise me in the slightest that a really dumb racist might think that all JW’s are black, or brown, or something other than whitesome and delightsome.

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses do not vote or get involved in political processes and aren’t usually targeted by the LGBT community.

  • I think that you’re way off base. JWs are a small group and I never even hear them mentioned in passing as having a negative affect on the LGBTQ community, because as mentioned, they don’t vote, they don’t campaign for or against legislation, they don’t participate in the social structure of any country, state or city in which they live.

  • Maybe the person who is setting fire is an ex JW who perhaps was raped by an elder in one of those congregations, but maybe he reported the raped to the police and for that reason he was expelled. This Sect humillates its members in order to manipulate their minds, now this Sect met its match. Evil has been paid with evil.

  • They condemn homosexuality comparing as a choice and not genetic plus homosexuals are expelled if they committ fornication and the Watchtower considers homosexuality as an epidemic.

  • https://disqus.com/home/discussion/religionnews/fires_at_jehovah_witness_halls_in_washington_state_puzzle_authorities/#comment-4235711072

    “Let’s look first at a disgruntled, and now former, JW.”

    Note that it is Ben in Oakland who introduces a “disgruntled, and now former, JW”.

    I followed up on that noting that such and individual would be exhibiting
    “some sort of animosity towards any religion”.

    If you and Jim Johnson were following the exchange, that would have been point blank obvious.

  • True, but that is all internal. The JWs do not interact in the public sphere with anti-LGBTQ activity. Unlike the Mormons, who have poured $ millions into private coffers to affect the LGBTQ community with public legislation, referendums & initiatives.

  • Every single law passed impacts some community or other.

    The LGBT propaganda machine has been extremely successful, so it’s hate speech to join people like Ben in Oakland in jumping up and down on the LDS, Catholic Church, and others for the audacity to influence the legislation which creates the society in which they live.

  • Hate speech to point out the lies and back stabbing of anti-LGBTQ groups? Are you Black? Can you really experience the lies of white racists about Black people? Are you Muslim? Can you really experience the lies of anti-Muslims about Muslims? Are you LGBTQ? Can you really experience the lies of anti-LGBTQ folks against our community? No. Your experience is as an outsider with no experience, and no valid opinion.

  • I appreciate your trying to change the topic from the hate speech of the LGBT Gay Goliath to blacks, Muslims, and on and on and on. We read the stuff everyday in the comments at RNS.

    Two wrongs do not make a right, and pointing out that something is hate speech and supporting renders it a valid opinion – WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT.

  • No, that a grade school level reading comprehension and ACTUALLY READING THE EXCHANGE would have led you to avoid a ridiculous howler.

  • You appear to have gotten your panties in a twist. Did that little tantrum, jumping up & down shouting, clear that up for you?

  • I took Ben’s comment as listing his least likely suspect to the most likely. You tried to counter that and make his least likely the most likely. I agree with Ben, but you keep at it as you are want to do, throwing little tantrums, insulting others as you go and now adopting the jargon of the Black conservative, commenter here.

  • I know first hand how persons of the LGBTQ community have suffered at the hands of JW’s. They are either made to stop being gay?????? or are forced out of the cult and cut off by their friends and families.

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