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Fire Burns Armenian Church Building Overnight in San Francisco; Arson Suspected

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A building next to an Armenian church in San Francisco's Laurel Heights was burned overnight Thursday and the church's leaders believe it was arson.

Dispatchers received reports around 4 a.m. of a fire at the building next to the St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church at 70 Commonwealth Ave. Fire crews arrived not long after and managed to prevent it from spreading to the church, but the building appeared to be gutted.

"The San Francisco Fire Department responded immediately, however, the building has suffered a great loss," V. Rev. Fr. Smpad Saboundjian and church chairman Rostom Aintablian wrote in a message to parishioners.

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Aftermath of the fire near Armenian church in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Alex Bastian, deputy chief of staff for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office)

According to the church's Pastor Board of trustees, the building housed an auditorium called Vasbouragan Hall, as well as offices for St. Gregory Armenian Church and other various organizations. Church leads say the blaze began inside the church's Sunday school classrooms.

Both the San Francisco Police and Fire departments are investigating the fire, according to church officials.

"The Church Board of Trustees and community leaders are on site assessing the damage and working closely with San Francisco Fire and Police Departments in their investigation," the statement said.

Church leaders told that they suspect the fire is a form of harassment. The alleged arson follows an incident back in July where vandals spray-painted the Krouzian-Zekarian Vasbouragan Armenian School and the adjacent community center with anti-Armenian, pro-Azerbaijani graffiti.

Alex Bastian, deputy chief of staff for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, posted photos of the fire's destruction on Twitter, stating he was troubled that someone would burn down the church he was baptized in.

"For some context, in our history and around the globe, every time Armenians have been targeted, they come for our churches and our schools," Bastian tweeted. "But you know what? It's very hard to terrorize my community, no matter how hard people try. We are hardened by the millennia of hardship and the centuries of injustice. Most of us in the community, are refugees, or the children of refugees, from war zones around the world."

"So here is another message to the perpetrators of this cowardly act, we will not be terrorized, bullied or intimidated," Bastian wrote.

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