Catawba County church fire ruled arson, ‘anti-gay' graffiti found

- A two-alarm fire that broke out at a church in Vale, North Carolina early Monday morning has been ruled an arson and is now being investigated as a possible hate crime.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as well as the FBI said they are now investigating the incident as a possible hate crime. The Catawba County Sheriff's Office is also investigating. 

At least five fire departments were called to Providence Baptist Church on Providence Road around 2:00 a.m. Monday in Catawba County. 

Upon arrival crews reported heavy flames and smoke coming from the church. Fire officials reported the fire started in the basement.

Further investigation revealed that the church had been tagged with graffiti calling them an "anti-gay hate group." Church Music Director Buddy Whitener said it's just not true. 

"We do not preach hate at this church, we preach love. If these same people were to come in next Sunday and worship with us we'd be glad to have them," Whitener said. 

Authorities called the fire "suspicious" as soon as the graffiti was discovered. 

"Great positive people. No hatred, no malice, just loving compassionate people to be around, a lot of fun great we have a great time here," Church Pastor Ernie Richards said. 

The Cooks Community Volunteer Fire Department had told FOX 46 Charlotte earlier in the day that the fire may have been intentionally set due to the "anti-gay" vandalism found around the back of the church.

"I'm really hurt because of people in this world that would do that to those of us of faith," Whitener said. 

No injuries were reported.

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