SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) – An armed man who said he was “disturbed about the world’s religions” used lighter fluid to set fire to the pulpit and bishop’s chair in a historic Roman Catholic cathedral Tuesday, then surrendered after a brief standoff with police, authorities said.

Nobody was injured. The flames charred the pulpit but caused no structural damage to the twin-spired Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which dates to 1873 and is a popular tourist stop.

Stuart Vincent Smith, 31, was holding a handgun and lighter fluid when he entered the sanctuary shortly after morning Mass, police spokesman Bucky Burnsed said.

Police evacuated the surrounding block and a nearby Catholic girls’ school during the standoff, which lasted less than an hour. Smith, who is from the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, was taken into custody without incident and jailed on suspicion of arson.

He told a detective that he was “disturbed about the world’s religions,” Burnsed said.

Receptionist Peggy Baker said she approached the gunman as he walked to the altar.

“He told me to stand back, he had lighter fluid,” Baker said. “He threw it on a chair and started lighting a cushion. I told him he can’t do that. He told me to stand back and pointed the gun at me.”

Baker said she ran screaming from the sanctuary, and cathedral staff noticed the fire on a security monitor. A monsignor ran into the sanctuary yelling at the man to put the fire out.

“No one here knows him. No one here recognized him,” said Savannah Archdiocese spokeswoman Barbara King. “The pulpit is burned, large chunks of the pulpit are destroyed. I would say it’s totally gone.”

The church, which was rebuilt after a fire more than a century ago, underwent a $10 million restoration in 2000 and is the site of the Mass that kicks off the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

AP-ES-10-07-03 2000EDT



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