A fire has broken out on 3rd Street on the South Side. Fire crews are on the scene. (Courtesy of Tony Webster/Creative Commons)

Arrest made for Bethlehem church arson


Wilmer Jose Ortiz Torres of Allentown was arrested by the Bethlehem Police Department in the investigation of two church fires that broke out at Iglesia Pentecostal De Bethlehem Church on April 26.

According to The Morning Call, the church caught fire twice that week, once on April 23, and a second time two days later. This pattern led the authorities to investigate the fires as acts of arson. Upon further investigation, police found indications that gasoline had been ignited on the roof. This is where the second fire originated at 2 a.m. that morning, though it was contained.

“I was very saddened to hear of the fire, and I immediately hoped that it was not intentionally set,” said Lehigh Police Chief Jason Schiffer. “When a fire destroys anything, it is always difficult to deal with the complete loss of personal items that cannot be replaced. That is even more tragic if the fire is intentionally set.”

Bethlehem Police Chief Mark DiLuzio said footage from a Bethlehem Housing Authority camera across from the church provided enough evidence to make the arrest, according to The Morning Call article. The footage showed a man purchasing gasoline from a gas station and later, a man on the church’s roof. Church officials helped identify the man in the video as Ortiz Torres, who was taken into custody.

An update from The Morning Call stated that his neighbors said no friends or family visited him, he didn’t speak about religious topics and was described as “a loner.” It also stated that Pastor Carmen L. Cruz said she was unable to think of a specific motive.

“The good thing to say in the wake of the arson attack at the Inglesia Pentecostal Church is that no one was hurt,” said Lehigh University Chaplain Lloyd Steffen in an email. “The Church membership has lost its home and its place of worship, and they will have to think about how to recreate a safe space for their community. Given what has been reported about the incident and the person being charged with the crime, this was unpredictable and unexpected. Churches are by their very mission open and welcoming places, and this kind of attack does expose their vulnerability.”

The congregation of Iglesia Pentecostal De Bethlehem Church is predominantly Hispanic and has about 150 members. The acts of arson are still under investigation.

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