A masked man broke into the Incarnation Catholic Church northwest of Tampa, Florida, last weekend and set fire to the interior before fleeing, the Tampa Bay Times reported Tuesday.
Surveillance video shows a shirtless, masked man throwing projectiles to break a glass window on the church door to gain access to the building last Friday night around 10:30pm. Wearing long pants, white sneakers, and a surgical mask, the man entered the church carrying a large bottle in his hands.
The man proceeded to pour clear liquid on three wooden pews and then set fire to them before running away as the flames began to rise. In all, the man was in the church for no more than three minutes.
According to Hillsborough County sheriff Chad Chronister, although fire crews arrived swiftly to extinguish the fire, the church sanctuary suffered significant damage.
The church’s pastor, Father Michael Cormier, said last Sunday that he had considered closing the church for the weekend and cancelling Sunday Masses in order to have work done to the damaged pews.
“But we thought: if we did that, evil would win,” the priest said.
“We wouldn’t have Mass for one weekend, and evil would win,” he said. “We have been struck down by this, but not destroyed. In the end, evil never wins.”
Father Cormier also told the faithful that the proper Christian response to the incident was to pray for the arsonist.
“May this terrible act cause us to unify, to love one another more than ever, and to continue to make [our parish] the bedrock of faith and strength it has always been,” he prayed.
As Breitbart News has reported, over the past months vandals and arsonists have targeted Christian churches across the United States for acts of desecration.
In particular, Catholic churches were struck repeatedly during the week of July 10-16, which included the desecration of statues of Jesus and Mary — some of which were “beheaded or spray-painted” — along with graffiti on church buildings and several fires.
On July 10, a vandal sprayed a statue of the Virgin Mary that stands in front of Cathedral Preparatory School in Queens, New York, with the word “IDOL.” The rector of Cathedral Prep, Father James Kuroly, called the incident “an act of hatred.”
The following day, a 24-year-old man named Stephen Anthony Shields drove his minivan into the front of Queen of Peace church in Ocala, Florida. The man got out of the car and poured gasoline around the church lobby and lit it on fire, causing extensive damage. Police eventually arrested the suspect, and charged him with arson and resisting arrest, as well as attempted second-degree murder, since a number of parishioners were present in the church at the time of the attack.
Later that evening, an arsonist set fire to a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, outside the church of St. Peter’s Parish, setting fire to plastic flowers in the hands of the statue and causing smoke and flame damage to the face, head, and upper body. The statue had been erected decades ago as a memorial to servicemen killed during World War II.
Also on July 11, presumed arsonists set fire to Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in Los Angeles, a mission founded by St. Junipero Serra in 1771, destroying the building’s timber roof and sections of the interior.
Still that same day, vandals beheaded a statue of the Virgin Mary and knocked the monument off its pedestal at Saint Stephen Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“What a strange time when live it. Over the weekend, a [sic] outdoor statue of the Blessed Mother was beheaded at St. Stephen Parish in Chattanooga,” tweeted Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville. “This is occurring at various spots throughout the United States.”
The spree of vandalism continued, with two marauders desecrating a statue of Jesus at Sacred Heart church in Calgary, Canada, on July 14, using spray paint and a marker or chalk. A similar case occurred at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Ontario, where intruders had cut the heads off several statues with a power saw or grinder.
During the night between July 15 and 16, vandals spray-painted the entrance to St. Joseph’s church in New Haven, Connecticut, profaning the building with satanic symbols and others, including an upside-down pentagram in a circle.
The Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, said on Facebook that the incident followed “an apparent trend of desecrating Catholic spaces throughout the nation, as evidenced by incidents in Chattanooga, Queens, Boston, Sacramento, and Ocala.”
“The underlying motive of these sacrilegious attacks is clear: to intimidate and instill fear in the hearts of those who worship Christ,” the Archdiocese said. “However, our cherished Catholic faith has survived for 2,000 years in the faces of many different oppressors, and it is not about to yield now.”
The string of incidents became so notorious that they drew an official reaction from leaders of the U.S. Bishops’ conference (USCCB), who denounced the acts of vandalism, arson, and desecration of Catholic sites.
Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty, and Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, issued a joint statement decrying the repeated incidents of church vandalism and fires.
“In the last few weeks, we have witnessed, among other things, one church rammed with a car and set on fire, as well as statues of Jesus Christ and of the Virgin Mary defaced or even beheaded,” the bishops noted. “An historic mission church has also been badly damaged by fire, and the cause is still under investigation.”
“Whether those who committed these acts were troubled individuals crying out for help or agents of hate seeking to intimidate, the attacks are signs of a society in need of healing,” the bishops noted in their statement.
“In those incidents where human actions are clear, the motives still are not,” they continued. “As we strain to understand the destruction of these holy symbols of selfless love and devotion, we pray for any who have caused it, and we remain vigilant against more of it.”
“Our nation finds itself in an extraordinary hour of cultural conflict. The path forward must be through the compassion and understanding practiced and taught by Jesus and his Holy Mother,” they said. “Let us contemplate, rather than destroy, images of these examples of God’s love.”