90.3 WBHM Birmingham-- This is Alabama's Black Belt - so named for the dark, rich soil that made cotton king and fueled the institution of slavery. Today, the area remains predominantly African American, poor and rural.

"Nobody comes to Galilee without really coming to Galilee. It's nothing you can accidentally find"

Bob Little is pastor of Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in tiny Panola, Alabama - near the Mississippi border. Sometime early Tuesday morning someone braved the long dirt road that leads a mile into the woods to burn Little's church to the ground. The only things that remain are the concrete front steps and the headstones in the cemetery.

"It's very shocking because everybody else was on the main thoroughfare and when you talk about Galilee we are off the beaten trail and to find us you have to already plotting something out to do something of this magnitude."

Galilee Missionary Baptist has been a presence in Panola for more than a century. Churches are the center of public life here in rural Alabama. Even the local road names back that up... Hope Way, Holy Lane and Faith Circle. But this month's church fires are testing that faith, says Pastor Little.

"It's somebody got a vendetta, just got an evil spirit about 'em, just to burn churches, you know."

That's just one of the rumors circulating ... that the fires were set by devil worshippers or maybe whacked out meth addicts. Investigators are looking for a dark SUV reportedly spotted driving slowly by a church shortly after it was set on fire. Witnesses say a white man was behind the wheel and that's fueling speculation among people like Panola resident Shirley Collins that the fires are race related, even though half of the fires occurred at predominately white churches.

"I think the white churches were burned initially, were to just kind of throw you off track. To say, okay well they're just burning churches. You don't just go out and randomly burn churches."

Collins, who is black, says many of her black friends and neighbors agree, but down the road in the town of Boligee, where Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church also burned - lunchtime diners at the Boligee Cafe dismiss the theory. David Shaw is a private practice attorney in nearby Eutaw, Alabama.

"What I'm struck by is you're looking for a rural church to burn, in this part of the state in Greene county, you're going to find black churches just because there aren't that many white rural churches in Greene County."

Shaw says he thinks folks are giving the arsonists too much credit, assuming it's part of a larger, more organized conspiracy.

"It's more the product of ignorance on a few people's part than it was a hate crime, per se. I don't think it was targeted at any individuals. It was just a bunch of people acting stupid."

Don Williams stopped by the Boligee Cafe during his route reading meters for the local electric company. He says if anything, the fires are pulling the community together.

"Everybody hates to see everybody lose their church. The place that they go to worship. It's hard on them."

But Shaw and Williams are white, and while local white residents say the criminals are equal opportunists, black residents overwhelmingly think they're being targeted. This spate of fires is rekindling old tensions... memories of church bombings during the civil rights movement and a string of racially-motivated church arsons in 1996. Trying to ease nerves during a tour to affected churches earlier this week, Alabama Governor Bob Riley said it's too early to assign motive.

"I think this is an isolated instance. But I don't think there is a grand conspiracy out there against the Baptist church or against religion."

Riley says the arsonists are probably just thrill seekers. Still - residents, both black and white, are worried about potential copy cats, so they're taking precautions.

-- story by Tanya Ott, aired on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered on February 13, 2006