Attack on a church

February 23, 1993

"Why would anybody do something like this? What goes through their minds to set fire to a church?"

A member of the Essex ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (better known as the Mormon Church) posed those questions Sunday as she and other shocked congregants examined the damage done to their chapel by a Saturday night fire. The blaze, eventually brought under control by 120 firefighters, was a case of arson, according to the Baltimore County fire department. A gym inside the building was also destroyed.

Why indeed? Why would anyone do something so craven and heinous as torch a church?

Sadly for the Mormon structure on Stemmers Run Road, this is just the latest in a series of arson and vandalism incidents. Four years ago, even before construction of the building was completed, sections of it were gutted by an arson fire. Since then, ward members say, vandals have spray-painted profanities on the walls of the church and fired bullets through its windows.

And still no one can answer why these attacks have occurred. Some might blame kids in search of dangerous kicks. Others might blame the rough element of a rough section of the county.

What about the possibility of anti-Mormon sentiment in Essex? It would be hard to imagine why this group should be singled out, particularly after it has tried to reach out to its neighbors with open houses and public choral concerts.

To be sure, persecution of the faithful is as much a part of Mormon history as of any other religion's annals. In 1844, church founder Joseph Smith was lynched by an anti-Mormon mob. The denomination, with more than 4 million members in the United States, continues to operate largely outside the Christian mainstream. Mormons are criticized for taking this separatist stance. Yet they also draw praise for their advocacy as well as their embodiment of the work ethic, family values and Christian teachings. Would many mainstream Christians really fault such an agenda?

As the Essex ward Mormons rebuild their church from the ashes of last weekend's fire, we share their outrage. We do this not because of the congregation or denomination involved, but because an attack on any religious group must be held as an attack on the basic freedoms of expression and worship. That's one point on which all American religious observers, and non-observers, too, should be able to agree.

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