ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Tuan Pham says he was just looking for a peaceful place to put his Catholic-based prayer garden. He had a 7-foot Jesus statue custom made in his native Vietnam. He put it in his backyard, overlooking the Mississippi River and the St. Paul skyline.
Pham says he woke up Sunday morning to a wall of flames around his statue.
"Right now I'm thinking and praying very hard," Pham said a few hours later.
Family members say someone took wood from Pham's pile and placed it at the base of the statue before lighting it on fire. "You can see evidence on the ground, there's an aerosol can," Pham's son-in-law Dao Phan said.
It may have burned for a while; Pham's daughter took pictures of her father trying to knock down the flames.
Fire investigators were combing through the garden on Sunday. If they find evidence of arson, they are expected to forward the case to police.
"It pains me, it's very upsetting. This means a lot to him. This is where he finds joy and where he spends a lot of his time," Phan said about his retired father-in-law.
The statue took months to ship. It is a replica of a massive one Pham helped build more than 40 years ago in his hometown of Vung Tau, Vietnam. Pham says he was jailed for his catholic beliefs before he fled the country for Minnesota.
The statue was put in place last October and a month later, Phan says, the city received a complaint about it. The family requested a variance after officials found it was not the required 40 feet from the bluff line, but that request was denied by the city council last week.
The family wonders if the fire was motivated by race or religion. They also wonder why someone would try to burn marble; guessing it was merely meant to send a message. "Why does somebody need to go this far?" Phan questioned.
A St. Paul police spokesperson says department officers were not dispatched to the fire. St. Paul Fire Marshall Steve Zaccard said he was waiting on his investigators report.
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