MELBOURNE, Fla. - A possible hate crime is under investigation after a fire was set at a Central Florida church, where vandals also spray-painted "Allahu Akbar."
The incident happened around 3 a.m. Monday at the New Shiloh Christian Church in Melbourne on Sarno Road. About 1,500 members attend the church.
Melbourne police said officers and firefighters discovered the blaze after a fire alarm sounded. Arson was the expected cause, police said.
Fire sprinklers helped contain the flames to a storage unit connected to the 125,000-square-foot building.
The words "Allahu Akbar" were spray-painted on the storage unit. "Allahu Akbar" is an Arabic phrase typically translated as "God is great" and is a common expression used in various contexts.
A swastika was also scrawled on church property. Inside the swastika was written, "We see u."
"To find something like that in 2015 is unbelievable. It's just disheartening," said New Shiloh Christian Church Bishop Jacquelyn Gordon. "They told us that this is definitely a hate crime and that they're going to patrol our area even more and just look out for us and they thought it was senseless and I feel the same way."
Police have not confirmed to Local 6 that the case is being investigated as a hate crime, but say they are investigating the fire and vandalism as arson and criminal mischief.
"I would just say that everything is being looked at. All avenues are going to be explored. If it meets that criteria, that would be something that would be looked at," said Lt. Cheryl Trainer.
Police told Local 6 they are hesitant to label the case as a hate crime because they don't want to alarm the public. They said they will determine if the graffiti was done at the same time as the vandalism and arson to determine if it is, in fact, a hate crime. At this time they are calling it arson and criminal mischief.
Police later said on Wednesday they believed the graffiti on the church shed was believed to be an "isolated incident of localized juvenile vandalism."
Damage to the church property was estimated to be about $5,000.
Gordon said her staff tried to spray paint over the message to hide it.
"It really took a lot out of me when I drove up and I saw that sign on the side of the building because I'm preaching God is love, why would someone take the time to put a sign up to show hatred," Gordon said.
No information about the arsonist or arsonists was known, and a police investigation is ongoing.
The FBI told Local 6, "We are aware of the incident and reviewing the matter."
Gordon said is the second time in less than two weeks that vandals have targeted her building, which is in the process of being remodeled.
The church said it plans to increase security while members are there. The bishop said he will tell congregants Wednesday evening what happened.
"The one thing I really want them to do is not to be afraid," said Bishop Jacquelyn Gordon. "We're going to have people walking around surrounding the area every time we have service here to make sure people are safe and nothing happens on our watch."
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