The FBI is exploring an explosion and vandalism early Saturday at a Southern California church which has attracted protests over its contentious pastor and his anti-LGBTQ views.
A fire and explosion were reported shortly after 1 a.m. at First Works Baptist Church in El Monte, about 13 miles east of Los Angeles. Police responding to the scene saw smoke billowing from windows blown out from the burst and graffiti sprayed on the outside of the single-story brick building.
No accidents have been reported, town officials said in a press release.
The FBI referred to the explosion as an"IED attack"
Fourteen houses and eight apartments in the area were temporarily evacuated, as bomb technicians investigated. All residents had returned to their homes by 8 a.m.
Authorities did not immediately announce a motive, but protesters have targeted the church led by Pastor Bruce Mejia, who has condemned same-sex relations. Thus far, there haven't been any arrests.
"regarding the question of whether this was a hate crime, that's always going to be regarded among the theories when a house of worship is assaulted," FBI Los Angeles spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said in a statement supplied to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. "However, it would be premature to affirm any motive at this time, and we aren't ruling any out other motive."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group that monitors hate groups, put the church onto its watch list of all"anti-LBGTQ hate bands" at 2019.
A statement on the church site declares:"We believe that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination which God punishes with the death penalty."
In a meeting with The New York Times Saturday,'' Mejia said the assault is"not going to really deter us from doing what we always do"
"We are not frightened of the. It's only a little bump in the road, and we're still planning to have church tomorrow, obviously at this present place, but we're still planning to get church and once this is said and done, we're going to go back," the pastor said.
Two weeks prior to the attack, Mejia filed a police report saying the church had received an arson threat via social media, Mercury News reported.
El Monte Police Chief David Reynoso met with Mejia on Jan. 7, advising him to not respond to instigate violence. Residents who spoke at a recent city council meeting described Mejia's sermons along with the church's stances as hate speech.
After Saturday's attack, Keep El Monte Friendly, '' a group that has been organizing protests from the church, said in a statement on Instagram their team"is suspended in love" and does"not condone or promote violence." The post directed anyone with information to get the FBI Los Angeles Field Office in -LRB-310-RRB- 477-6565.
An online petition started by Keep El Monte Friendly calling for the church to be kicked out of the city had over 14,000 signatures of Saturday morning, according to the Associated Press.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents the area in which the church is situated, condemned the IED attack in a statement, vowing that"violence is never the answer, even in response to hate speech."
She stated that her office known concers about the warrior's"anti-LGBTQ+ and misogynistic sermons" to Los Angeles County's Human Rights Commission, which was working with the town of El Monte to"de-escalate the circumstance."
"I appreciate inclusivity, equality and diversity. I also support the right to peacefully protest; nonetheless, this assault isn't right and it's dangerous," Solis wrote. "I urge city leaders, church leaders, and civic leaders to develop and work together to handle hate problems in our community."
"As your mayor, I will always ensure that the City of El Monte is still an illustration for civility, respect, and inclusion of all people across the nation," Ancona said in a statement on Twitter. "We are a town that cares and protects all of its visitors and residents. We respect and uphold the laws which protect each one of us, no matter who we are. At this moment we must stand together to uplift one another in confirming the City of El Monte's slogan,'Welcome to Friendly El Monte.'"