A recent fire at an Armenian church is now one of three incidents levied against the city’s Armenian community over the past two months that police are investigating as hate crimes.
The San Francisco Police Department’s Arson Task Force is investigating the fire that burned the parish office adjacent to the St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Laurel Heights on Sept. 17 as a hate crime, officials said this week.
The other two incidents are tied to the KZV Armenian School in the Parcmerced neighborhood.
On Sept. 19, two days after the fire, police officers heard gunshots outside the school and discovered bullet damage on a sign out front. The school was previously vandalized with hateful graffiti in July.
The series of what appears to be anti-Armenian crimes has been deeply troubling to the Bay Area’s tight-knit Armenian community.
Public officials including Gov. Gavin Newsom, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, who is of Armenian descent herself, have condemned the violence against the community in recent days.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin called the incident “an outrage” and an act of “cowardly, hateful, criminal conduct.”
This is an outrage.
— Chesa Boudin 博徹思 (@chesaboudin) September 17, 2020
The Armenian community of San Francisco woke up today to an arson at their church.
There is no room for this cowardly, hateful, criminal conduct in San Francisco. We stand with the Armenian community against hate!https://t.co/ucGAHFLwGW
The fire last week destroyed Sunday school classrooms, a library, meeting rooms and church offices as flames tore through the building before dawn. No one was injured, but the fire incinerated baptism, marriage and other historical records that community members called irreplaceable.
Police have not taken into custody any suspects in relation to the suspected arson or the two incidents at the KZV Armenian School, SFPD Spokesman Robert Rueca said Wednesday. The department has stepped up security at the church, performing nighttime patrols on Commonwealth Avenue, as well as near the school on Brotherhood Way.
Last month police released surveillance video of the vandals who spray painted messages such as “F— ARMENIA,” “U WILL PAY” on the school’s walls and gates, as well as sexist slurs against the Kardashians, a celebrity family of Armenian heritage. The video, taken on the night of July 24, showed four vandals jumping over the school fence with paint cans while two others stood as lookouts.
Blanca Moran, who lives near the church, was awoken by the sound of male voices and shattered glass around 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 17, the morning the fire broke out at the church office. She smelled smoke drifting through her open window and quickly checked to see if her own house was on fire, but found nothing.
Hearing voices outside, Moran walked to the lawn in front of the church offices, where she met two men who were taking video of the building on their phones. They pointed to the offices when she inquired about their presence in the neighborhood. It remains unclear if the two men played any part in the suspected arson.
Moran returned to her home, and the men disappeared before police and fire crews were called to the scene half an hour later.
The church fire and school vandalism appear to be part of a series of attacks on Armenian meeting places around the world following a flareup of tensions on the Armenian-Azerbaijan border. European media outlets reported that a Turkish nationalist group in France disrupted an Armenian demonstration and desecrated a statue of a priest who was imprisoned during the Armenian genocide. Police in Moscow reportedly arrested more than 30 people after groups of Azerbaijanis beat up Armenians and attacked Armenian-owned stores.
The Bay Area’s Armenian community is offering a $25,000 reward to anyone with information that leads to an arrest of those involved in the incidents, said Abraham Panossian of the Armenian Cultural Foundation.
Moran, the church neighbor, said she is aware of the reward. But, like the Armenian community, she would prefer to see a resolution.
“I am not interested in money, I am just interested in justice,” she said.
Nora Mishanec is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @NMishanec