By Rich McKay
ATLANTA (Reuters) - The Baptist church where the suspect in this week's Atlanta-area spa killings was a member issued a statement on Friday decrying the attack as a wicked betrayal of faith and describing the eight victims, who included six women of Asian descent, as blameless.
Robert Aaron Long, 21, has been charged with eight counts of homicide in Tuesday's fatal shooting of four people at two day spas in Atlanta and four others at another spa in Cherokee County, about 40 miles (64 km) north of the state capital.
In a statement, the Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia, said Long's "extreme and wicked act is nothing less than rebellion against our Holy God and His Word."
Investigators said Long had admitted carrying out the attacks, claiming he was driven by internal conflict over what he described as a sex addiction, not racial animus toward Asians.
But the rampage has stirred fear among Asian Americans, who see the crimes as a part of a national surge in racially motivated attacks that has accelerated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visited Atlanta on Friday to offer support to Asian-Americans and meet with leaders of the area's growing Asian-American and Pacific Islander community.
Biden deplored a surge in anti-Asian violence in the United States and asked all Americans to stand together against hate.
"Aaron's actions are antithetical to everything that we believe and teach as a church. In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the actions of Aaron Long as well as his stated reasons for carrying out this wicked plan," said the church, where Long and his father were members. "No blame can be placed upon the victims."
A former roommate of Long's at a rehabilitation center said the suspect would feel shame and remorse after frequenting massage parlors for sex, then "return to God."
Fulton County officials on Thursday identified the four Atlanta victims as Soon C. Park, 74, Hyun J. Grant, 51, Suncha Kim, 69, and Yong A. Yue, 63. All were of Korean descent, according to South Korea's consulate in Atlanta.
The Cherokee County victims were identified by authorities as: Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, Paul Andre Michels, 54, Xiaojie Yan, 49, and Daoyou Feng, 44.
South Korea's foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday that the Korean government strongly supports the U.S. government's efforts to confront hatred and violence.
The Georgia killings have prompted police departments to step up patrols and visibility in Asian-American communities around the country. Hate crimes against Asian Americans in 16 major cities rose 149% in 2020 over 2019, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
Authorities stressed they have not ruled out charging Long with hate crimes even though Long says racial bias was not his motivation.
A former Cherokee County Sheriff's department spokesman who came under criticism for saying Long had "a really bad day" and who had previously promoted T-shirts blaming Asians for the pandemic has been reassigned, the New York Times reported.
Captain Jay Baker, who is named as director of communications on the sheriff's website, was replaced as by Erika Neldner, whose email signature identifies her as communications director.
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in Vista, California and Joyce Lee in Seoul; Editing by Alistair Bell and Frances Kerry)