$25,000 Reward Being Offered for Information on the Blaze
The San Francisco community began the task of cleaning up after a fire raged through the Armenian community center adjacent to the St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church on Thursday. San Francisco Fire Department officials have launched an arson investigation as community leaders are calling it a hate crime because this was second Armenian instituted being targeted in less than two months.
The police and fire departments have launched an investigation, with S.F. Fire Department Lieutenant Jonathan Baxter telling local media that the fact-finding effort is critical in launching a criminal investigation.
“We want the facts and we want the science behind the facts and we want the evidence behind the fact so if we do have to make a case… we are able to take that with complete confidence through the legal system,” Lieutenant Baxter told the local FOX affiliate KTVU Channel 2 news.
Early Thursday at around 4 a.m. neighbors said they heard the sound of glass shattering — and soon after the building caught fire.
Rostom Aintablian – chairman of the church’s board of trustees – believes they were targeted.
“It has to be some kind of hate crime involved here,” said Rostom Aintablian the chairman of the church board of trustees and a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Western U.S. Central Committee told the local Channel 4 news on Thursday. “We had a similar situation at our KZV school and we think this is somehow the continuation.”
“We have no doubt in our minds that this is the continuation of that act, even though there’s nothing outwardly pointing at that,” Aintablian added. “The timing of it being right at the rapid succession leads us to believe this is related to that.”
Khatchig Tazian, the chairman of the local ARF Kristapor Chapter told Channel 4 that he believes that recent tensions on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border are spilling into the San Francisco Armenian community.
“This seems to be a worldwide organized effort to intimidate us,” Tazian told Channel 4. “A, because of the Armenian genocide which happened 100 years ago and Turkey, the government still denies, and B, because tension on the borders that exists between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the simmering so called frozen conflict which is not so frozen anymore.”
California Governor Gavin Newson expressed his support to the Armenian community of San Francisco through in a Twitter post Friday.
“I’ve experienced so many wonderful, moving moments in this church. Heartbroken to hear of this — but I know this community lives well beyond these physical walls and will continue to provide the hope and faith it does to so many,” said Newsom in a Twitter post on Friday.
I’ve experienced so many wonderful, moving moments in this church. Heartbroken to hear of this — but I know this community lives well beyond these physical walls and will continue to provide the hope and faith it does to so many.https://t.co/NtsS2R6yGv
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) September 18, 2020
St. Gregory the Illuminator parish priest Very Reverend Smpad Saboundjian will lead prayers for peace and spiritual strength in the church courtyard at 4:30 p.m. on Friday to help support and guide the community through these difficult times.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed and other city officials, neighbors, and supporting organizations will be in attendance.
Asbarez will livestream the event on its Facebook page.
The Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, of which S.F. St. Gregory the Illuminator Church is a part, condemned the suspected arson attack, saying that it, and the local community, are awaiting the results of the investigation “with hopes that the perpetrators will be held accountable.”
“This act is the latest of a number of hateful attacks on our community in recent years, most recently the vandalism of Krouzian-Zekarian-Vasbouragan School in San Francisco,” explained the Western Prelacy in its statement.
The Armenian National Committee of America-Western Region also condemned the incident saying it “is deeply concerned about an emerging pattern of hate crimes targeting the Bay Armenian Armenian American community as an extension of Turkish and Azerbaijani Government aggression against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh.”
“This horrendous attack has left many in our community reeling. Today, we stand in solidarity with our community members in San Francisco in commiserating this tragic loss and in calling for a full investigation into this incident,” added the ANCA-WR.
“The church building, one of the major centers of the San Francisco Armenian community, is a place very close to the hearts of many members of the West Coast Armenian community who have been welcomed through its doors on many occasions as part of community events and gatherings. The site was also home to the local Hamazkayin library, a trove of precious archival material irreparably damaged in the blaze,” explained the ANCA-WR.
“As descendants of victims and survivors of the Armenian Genocide, the Bay Area Armenian American community understands the very real consequences of allowing intolerance and hate to remain unchecked. We will be working with the St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church Board of Trustees and the San Francisco Fire and Police Departments to help better ensure the safety and security of the local Armenian American community and its institutions, while pressing for a thorough investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators of both the Krouzian-Zekarian Armenian School and St. Gregory Armenian Church Center attacks,” the local ANCA-San Francisco Bay Area Chapter said Thursday as the news of the fire was reported.
Late Thursday evening, community leaders met with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee and Supervisor Catherine Stefani to discuss this latest attack on the Armenian community.
“It sickens me to see yet another violent attack on the Armenian community. These acts have become more brazen and are not isolated incidents, but intentional threats to cause destruction and fear. We must put an end to this and bring the perpetrators to justice. I am calling on our city to come together– please report any information you have on these crimes and take action in condemning this hate,” said Yee, the President of the Board of Supervisors.
“This is another hateful act of violence against our Armenian community. We stand with them & must bring the perpetrators to justice,” Yee said on Twitter Friday.
The community center next to St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church was set on fire. This is another hateful act of violence against our Armenian community. We stand with them & must bring the perpetrators to justice. https://t.co/MkOHcCZUTc
— Norman Yee (@NormanYeeSF) September 18, 2020
“This latest attack against our City’s Armenian community is absolutely despicable, and those responsible must be brought to justice,” Stefani told the community and in a Twitter Post. “We cannot tolerate acts of hate—not in San Francisco, not anywhere.”
“I spoke with leaders from the Armenian community this evening, and I have no doubt that this incredibly resilient community will recover even stronger than before. I join all of San Francisco in standing with our Armenian neighbors during this time of healing,” added Stefani in her Twitter post.
The Armenian Bar Association’s Armenian Rights Watch Committee called for a task force to be set up to investigate the what it called a surge in anti-Armenian attacks.
“Given the two anti-Armenian incidents within a span of three months, we believe it is imperative for the United States Attorney for the Northern District of California and the San Francisco field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to work closely with state and local authorities to investigate these unseemly events. The Bureau has a special interest in investigating criminal offenses against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, ethnicity, or gender identity. As the lead investigative agency for criminal violations of federal civil rights statutes, the Bureau is uniquely positioned to assist its state and local law enforcement partners in Northern California, even if federal charges are not brought,” said the ARW in an announcement on Thursday.
“To that end, we strongly believe that federal agencies’ resources, forensic expertise, and experience in identifying and establishing hate-based motives will provide an invaluable complement to local law enforcement in ferreting out the source of the hate incidents against the Armenian-American community of Northern California. Should prosecution be instituted under state hate-crime statutes, we call on the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to closely monitor any such proceedings due to a compelling national interest, as anti-Armenian hate crimes have been reported increasingly across the nation,” added the ARW.
Armenia’s Ambassador to the United States Varuzhan Nersesyan condemned the incident calling for a complete investigation.
“We call on U.S. law enforcement authorities at the local, state, and federal levels to fully investigate this incident and hold those responsible accountable,” the Ambassador said in a Facebook post.
“I share my solidarity with the Bay Area Armenian community, and express my hope that, as the result of our collective efforts, the damage to the Church and Community Center will soon be fully repaired,” he added.
The church has set up a GoFundMe page to assist in the recovery efforts.