'It's so sad': Fire damages southeast Calgary church, arson unit investigating

Police confirm the fire at a southeast Calgary church Sunday night was deliberately set. Calgary Police Staff Sergeant Kurt Jacobs says they are investigating links to other recent church vandalism in Calgary.

“We'll definitely see if there's connections to those and see if the same group or individuals are responsible for all of them or number of them, “said Jacobs, adding the police are working with churches to increase security, and are keeping a closer eye on them when on patrol.

“The respective districts are aware where these places of worship are. There are areas and we have increased patrols around them.”

The House of Prayer Alliance Church in Calgary was damaged after a fire broke out Sunday evening.

Firefighters were called to the church located at 4924 Forego Ave. S.E. in the community of Forest Heights at around 7:20 p.m. When they arrived, "large volumes of smoke and fire" were coming from the building.

Crews were able to bring the fire under control and extinguish small fires inside the church. No one was inside the church at the time, according to the Calgary Fire Department (CFD).

"Damage to the building is most extensive on the exterior with smoke damage on the interior," said CFD in a news release.

BUILDING OWNED BY CALGARY VIETNAMESE ALLIANCE

The building is owned by the Calgary Vietnamese Alliance and Sunday was the first time in over a year the full congregation had been able to meet in person to pray together, according to the church’s pastor

“It’s so sad,” said Reverend Mabini Dabalos, the pastor of the House of Prayer Alliance Church.

“The trend of the Christian churches being vandalized, burned, on the way here I was thinking in the back of my head, ‘I hope this isn’t (related to) what’s going on in our province’.”

Pastor Thai Nguyen said he is saddened by the fire, and the thought it may be connected to anger over Canada’s history of residential schools saying his congregation had nothing to do with that part of the country’s past

“We are Vietnamese refugees here. So maybe the people who do this don't know," said Nguyen. “If anybody do this so they should know that we (are) victims too, before we came here to find a new life."

The church fire has prompted a political response as well with premier Jason Kenney tweeting Monday morning “Another appalling arson attack on an Alberta Church. The Alliance House of Prayer has congregations of Vietnamese & Filipino Canadians. Many of the Vietnamese came here as refugees."

"These acts of hatred targeting the diverse Christian community must end.”

Another appalling arson attack on an Alberta Church. The Alliance House of Prayer has congregations of Vietnamese & Filipino Canadians. Many of the Vietnamese came here as refugees.

These acts of hatred targeting the diverse Christian community must end.https://t.co/RlHxoHjKCu

— Jason Kenney (@jkenney) July 5, 2021

ATTACKS 'HINDER' RECONCILIATION: NENSHI

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi went further saying the arson attacks and the vandalism of churches actually hinders the chances of reconciliation.

“This kind of vandalism is uncalled for. It's wrong, it shouldn't be done," said Nenshi. “When you deface or vandalize churches or monuments, you actually are hardening people's hearts at a moment where we need to soften people's hearts, at a moment where people now finally have reconciliation in their heart. I don't want to lose this moment.”

But Mount Royal University criminologist Doug King said civil disobedience like the splattering of paint on churches is a legitimate form of protest.

“It’s kind of the continuation of the civil rights movements that we saw in the 50s. And 60s in the states were, oftentimes individuals who don't have access to power or to the individual, you can't voice anything to people in positions of power, will turn to these kinds of civil disobedience," said King while adding escalations to acts of violence is unacceptable.

“Sometimes you have to kind of shake people up a bit," he added. "Now, I want to be really clear here that it can't escalate into violence, (and) it (also) can’t escalate into things like arson.”

But Sunday night it appears as if it had escalated to violence. The burned church will not be able to host worship for weeks, perhaps months, as it is rebuilt.

Dabalos said that will not deter his congregation which will be back this coming Sunday, holding service in the park across the street from the church.

“We'll be worshipping somewhere in this place here. And to show that we will continue to worship despite that the church was burned. So again, the church members, they encouraged me to keep going despite what happened.”

Dabolos also said his congregation will surround itself with orange flags and wear orange shirts on Sunday, as a show of solidarity with First Nations, as the church community seeks not only to rebuild the church but the church’s relationship with Calgary’s Indigenous people.