The FBI is investigating what it described as an improvised explosive device (IED) attack early Saturday at a church in southern California that’s been a target of recent protests for promoting views perceived to be anti-LGBTQ, misogynistic and against Black Lives Matter.
A fire and explosion were reported around 1:10 a.m. at First Works Baptist Church in El Monte, Calif., located about13 miles east of Los Angeles. A city police unit that first arrived at the scene witnessed smoke billowing from windows blown out from the blast and graffiti sprayed on the single-story white brick building.
No one was injured by the explosion, the City of El Monte said in a press release.
City firefighters, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and the FBI also responded.
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Those residing in 14 homes and eight apartments were temporarily evacuated, as bomb technicians and evidence response teams processed the scene. All residents had been returned to their homes by 8 a.m.
Authorities did not immediately announce a motive, but protestors have repeatedly targeted the church headed by Pastor Bruce Mejia, who has condemned same-sex relationships. So far, no suspects have been taken into custody.
“As to the question of whether this was a hate crime, that’s always going to be considered among the theories when a house of worship is attacked,” FBI Los Angeles spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said in a statement provided to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. “But it would be premature to confirm any motive at this time, and we are not ruling any other motive out.”
The church is included on a watch list of “anti-LBGTQ hate groups” assembled in 2019 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization specializing in civil rights litigation. A statement on the church website says: “We believe that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination which God punishes with the death penalty.”
The church did not immediately return a Fox News request for comment Sunday.
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In an interview with the New York Times Saturday, Mejia said the attack is, “not going to really deter us from doing what we always do.”
“We’re not afraid of this. It’s just a little bump in the road, and we’re still planning to have church tomorrow, obviously not at this current location, but we’re still planning to have church and once this is all said and done, we’re going to go back,” the pastor said.
Two weeks before the church was attacked, Mejia had filed a police report about receiving an arson threat via social media, Mercury News reported. El Monte Police Chief David Reynoso met with Mejia on Jan. 7, advising him not to react to critics or instigate violence. Residents who spoke at a recent city council meeting described Mejia’s sermons and the church’s stance as hate speech.
Following the attack, the group Keep El Monte Friendly, which has been organizing protests against the church, said in a statement on Instagram that their group “is rooted in love in acceptance” and does “not condone or promote violence.” The post directed anyone with information to contact the FBI Los Angeles Field Office at 310-477-6565.
An online petition that had been started by Keep El Monte Friendly and calls for the church to be kicked out of the city had more than 14,000 signatures as of Saturday morning, according to the Associated Press.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents the district where the church is located, condemned the IED attack in a statement, vowing that “violence is never the answer, even in response to hate speech.” She said her office referred concerning matters regarding “anti-LGBTQ+ and misogynistic sermons” given by the church’s pastor to the Los Angeles County’s Human Rights Commission, which has been working with the City of El Monte to “deescalate the situation.”
“I value inclusivity, diversity and equality. I also support the right to peacefully protest; however, this attack is wrong and it is dangerous,” Solis wrote. “I urge city leaders, church leaders, and civic leaders to come together and work together to address hate issues in our community.”
El Monte Mayor Jessica Ancona said the bombing was “highly concerning” and called for a thorough investigation using all available agencies, also including FBI and the county human relations commission.
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“As your mayor, I will always ensure that the City of El Monte continues to be an example for civility, respect, and inclusion of all people across the nation,” Ancona said in a statement on Twitter. “We are a city that cares and protects all its residents and visitors. We respect and uphold the laws that protect each one of us, regardless of who we are. At this very moment we must stand together to uplift one another in affirming the City of El Monte’s slogan, ‘Welcome to Friendly El Monte.'”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.