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Woman charged with arson in fire that destroyed St. George Coptic church in Whalley

Arson charges have been laid against Kathleen Panek, 35, of no fixed address
Aftermath of fire that destroyed St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Whalley on July 19. (Photo: Shane Mackichan)

Arson charges have been laid against Kathleen Panek, 35, of no fixed address in connection with the fire that destroyed St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Whalley last month.

Panek has been charged with two counts of arson for two fires at the church, the first on July 14 and the second on July 19.

“The loss of the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church has had a significant impact on members of that congregation and the greater community,” Surrey RCMP Sergeant Elenore Sturko said. “We hope that this announcement of an arrest and charges will bring some comfort to those who were impacted.”

Panek was set to appear in Surrey provincial court for a bail hearing on Monday afternoon. She was arrested on Thursday, Aug. 26.

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Sergeant Elenore Sturko, of the Surrey RCMP, said investigators have a motive in mind but she cannot reveal it because the case is now before the court. But police do not believe the fires were set in anger related to the discovery of unmarked Indigenous children’s graves discovered at residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan.

Several Catholic and Anglican churches were vandalized or burned in suspicious fires over the summer.

“We have not found any evidence that it would be related to specifically targeting the church as a result of any ongoing historical issues or troubled relationships with any communities,” Sturko said. “We don’t believe it’s connected to residential schools. We don’t believe it to be motivated by that. We’ve determined what we believe to be a motive not linked to residential schools.”

A GoFundMe campaign has raised $12,947 of its $100,000 goal to rebuild the church, which was located at 13905 108th Avenue.

Meantime, St. George’s congregation, comprised of roughly 250 families, has been holding their Sunday services out of St. Joseph Damascene Antiochian Orthodox Church at 11706 96th Ave. in North Delta.

Nobody was injured in the early-morning fires as the church was empty at the time.

Nancy Yacoub, a member of St. George’s congregation, noted Monday that the “whole area” around St. George’s is surrounded by other churches.

“Why ours was burned, you know, I don’t know.”

Father Bisenty Gerges said Monday they aim to rebuild the church at the same site. “Definitely we’re going to do that, yes. We’re raising money and do appreciate the help of friends.”

“At least we have a suspect, but we are not sure if they are a group or by herself alone. I doubt that such big huge action could be done by one lady, I don’t think so.”

Yacoub echoed that.

She said she believes the second fire was “totally, professionally done. It was burned from the beginning of the church to the far end of the church.”

But Sturko said she doesn’t think police are looking for other suspects.

“I don’t have any other information to suggest that we have any outstanding suspects.”

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About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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