WASILLA, Alaska - Members of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's church gathered in high spirits at a middle school yesterday, two days after their building was damaged by a fire authorities are investigating as arson.
Mrs. Palin, the former Republican vice presidential candidate, did not attend the services because she was in Juneau preparing to propose a state budget, her spokesman, Bill McAllister, said.
The congregation realizes the church is more than the building, said John Doak, associate pastor at Wasilla Bible Church.
"The definition of the church is the body of Christ, made up of God's people," Mr. Doak told about 1,200 people during the hourlong service at Wasilla Middle School. "The church is still there. We are the church."
Damage to the 2 1/2-year-old church building is estimated at $1 million. The blaze was set at the main entrance Friday night while a small group, including two children, were inside.
No one was injured.
Fire Chief James Steele said the blaze is being investigated as an arson.
Mrs. Palin, who was not at the church at the time of the fire, stopped by Saturday.
According to Mr. McAllister, Mrs. Palin told an assistant pastor she was sorry if the fire was connected to the "undeserved negative attention" the church has received since she became the vice presidential candidate Aug. 29.
After Mrs. Palin was named John McCain's running mate, the evangelical church was the subject of intense scrutiny.
Meanwhile, on television talk shows yesterday, Mr. McCain pointedly refused to say that he would back Mrs. Palin if she runs for president in 2012, saying there are plenty of other good people in the Republican Party to consider.
"Oh, no," Mr. McCain said on ABC's This Week program when asked if Mrs. Palin could count on Mr. McCain's support if she seeks the Republican presidential nomination.
"Listen, I have the greatest appreciation for Governor Palin and her family, and it was a great joy to know them. She invigorated our campaign. She was just down in Georgia and invigorated their campaign.
"But I can't say something like that. We've got some great other young governors. I think you're going to see the governors assume a greater leadership role in our Republican Party."