A 204-year-old church in Hedmark County, southeastern Norway, burned to the ground during the night. The fire started on the building’s exterior, and police later determined it was a case of arson.
“This is terrible, what else can I say,” Pastor Reidun Rakotonirainy told Aftenposten.no Friday morning. “It’s just completely tragic. We’re just wandering around the ruins now, while local residents stand around and watch.”
Shocked residents of the rural town tried hard to hold back tears as they quietly surveyed the damage Friday morning. One teenager told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that she had been due to be confirmed in the church in September. Others spoke of how family members had been christened, married and buried in and around the church.
The wooden church in Våler, between Oslo and the Swedish border to the east, was a long-time meeting place for the community. A crisis team was assembled to deal with the fire and hastily re-arrange several scheduled functions including a funeral that was to be held in the church on Friday.
Police said the first alarm went out about 2:30am, and firefighters immediately feared the blaze would spread to the church’s roof. It did, and by 4am the church was engulfed in flames.
An arson investigation was launched immediately, and police confirmed the fire had been intentionally set late Friday afternoon. They already had called for assistance from the national police investigation unit Kripos, and were seeking tips from the public.
Norway was plagued by a series of church fires set by arsonists in the 1990s, but NRK reported on the nightly national news that nearly half of the historic wooden churches in the country still lack fire alarm systems.
Firefighters managed to rescue some treasures from inside Våler Church, reported local newspaper Østlendingen , including church silver, paintings and an altar piece from 1607. A baptismal font from the 12thcentury was also salvaged.
The fire came just before the start of the three-day religious holiday weekend known as pinse in Norway (Whitsund). Våler Church was built in 1805, replacing a stave church on the site. It was a timber structure with seating for 400.