Three Montgomery County churches vandalized, torched in possible bias incident

Montgomery County fire and explosives investigators are seeking the public’s help following attacks on three churches relatively close to each other in Bethesda.

One incident was reported at 2:15 a.m. Sunday at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Catholic Church on Old Georgetown Road. An estimated $50,000 in damage was done to the sanctuary and forced the congregation to move services to an adjacent gymnasium, media reports indicated.

“We are of course shocked and saddened by this, but ours is a deeply committed and resilient community of faith,” a spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said in a statement. “When we are tested by fire – literally, in this case – our resolve and our bond are only strengthened. Our prayers are with the St. Jane de Chantal community today.”

The other two attacks were discovered in the early morning hours on Saturday and caused lesser damage to the North Bethesda United Methodist Church and the neighboring Wildwood Baptist Church.

The Methodist outpost sustained approximately $1,000 in damage when a fire was set outside the church building. Gravestones and other items were damaged at the Baptist church, although no value was affixed to that incident.

“Fire/Explosive Investigators seeking info RE this morning’s (2a) fire at Saint Jane Frances de Chantal Catholic Church ANYONE w/ any info Call @mcfrs ARSON Tipline 240.777.2263,” fire department public information officer Pete Piringer said via Twitter.

He earlier said the “fire involved several pews in [the] main church area.”

Area radio station WTOP cited Mr. Piringer as saying this was the second attack on the Catholic congregation in recent days. The station quoted the Rev. Samuel Giese, the church’s pastor, as describing the damage during Sunday’s Mass.

“Last night our church was vandalized,” Father Giese said during the online service, according to the report. “People broke in. They overturned statues. They tore down the Stations of the Cross. They desecrated the tabernacle and tried to set the church on fire,” he added.

The radio station’s report also quoted the priest as saying the attack was related to the Catholic Church’s pro-life position and the recent Supreme Court decision returning abortion law to the individual states.

The Council on Islamic-American Relations was among those calling for law enforcement to investigate “a possible bias motive” for the attacks.

“Because houses of worship were targeted, and because of the increase in bias-motivated incidents impacting faith and minority communities, we urge law enforcement authorities to investigate the possibility of a bias motive for these disturbing incidents,” Zainab Chaudry, who directs the group’s Maryland office, said in a statement.