At the center of the investigation into crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses — including two fires that destroyed worship centers — is a question that has vexed Washington state investigators, the governor and pretty much anyone who has come into contact with the religious denomination:
Who could muster this much destructive rage against a religion full of pacifists?
On Friday morning, Thurston County authorities responded to a predawn fire in the city of Lacey, Wash. But by the time firefighters arrived, it was too late. The blaze had caused the roof to collapse and destroyed the kingdom hall, the name Jehovah’s Witnesses give to their worship centers.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives quickly ruled that the fire was intentionally set, saying it fit the pattern of the other kingdom hall attacks in Thurston County over the past nine months that have rocked the Jehovah’s Witness community.
No one has been arrested, and the only image of a suspect is surveillance video of a person in a hoodie and coveralls pouring gasoline on the side of a hall, then sparking a bloom of fire. Authorities don’t know whether that person is the only perpetrator, and a motive continues to elude investigators.
“Why is this specific religion being targeted?” Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza told KOMO, the ABC affiliate in Seattle. “Why are these churches being targeted? What are they doing that is so wrong and oppressive?”
The attacks began March 19, with intentionally set fires starting minutes apart, sending fire crews racing from a kingdom hall in Olympia to one in Tumwater, according to Seattle-area NBC affiliate KING. A July 3 fire also targeted the Olympia kingdom hall, this time destroying it. And Aug. 8, someone set a minor fire at a kingdom hall in Yelm. Authorities also recovered what they described as a dummy bomb at the scene.
In the midst of those attacks, on May 15, someone fired a volley of rifle rounds at the Yelm kingdom hall, causing about $10,000 in damage. Police collected nearly three dozen bullets.
All the attacks have occurred early in the morning, and there are no reports of injuries.
Still, Jehovah’s Witness leaders in the area say the attacks are a blow to their community.
“It’s devastating for the whole congregation,” Dan Woollett, one of the ministers who helped build the hall in Lacey in 1976, told KING. “It does make you sad, but it’s just a building. No matter who we are, no matter what our religious persuasion is, we have to cope with the problems we face."
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted a photo of the destruction in Lacey on Friday, calling the attacks “abhorrent.”
“The freedom to worship is a right that should be protected for every person in our country,” the Democratic governor said. “Our thoughts are with the members of our community affected by this abhorrent act.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses are known mostly for their door-to-door proselytizing, rejection of traditional holidays and refusal to accept blood transfusions even in the face of death. They reject subservience to the state, believing God to be the only true ruler. They do not serve in the military or vote.
Historically, attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses have threatened the group as a whole, not specific congregations. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime put Jehovah’s Witnesses in concentration camps because they were apolitical and wouldn’t join party organizations or let their children join the Hitler Youth. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a special unit of the Gestapo compiled a registry of Jehovah’s Witnesses and infiltrated their Bible studies.
And last year, the Supreme Court in Russia declared Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist group, banning it from operating in the country after declaring its members a threat to “public order and public security.” The move was criticized by Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights matters.
In Washington, ATF is offering a reward of up to $36,000 for any information that leads to an arrest in the Washington crimes, and federal authorities have formed a local task force to find the suspect. Authorities are also working with the religious group to beef up security, but the threat appears to be far from over.