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(Reuters) - Thieves have been stealing central air conditioning units from rural Tennessee churches during a scorching summer heat wave, and they'll face hell fire for eternity if they're not caught here on earth, a church official said on Tuesday.

"How would you say 'I stole your air-conditioners' to Jesus? He's the almighty," said Bill Casteel, an elder at Union Grove Church of Christ in Cleveland in southeast Tennessee.

Three units, worth $9,000, were stolen from Casteel's church, said Bob Gault, spokesman for the Bradley County Sheriff's Office. Other units worth thousands of dollars each were taken from Cedar Springs Baptist Church and Thompson Springs Baptist Church in the same town.

The units were stolen from the churches between July 13 and July 18, Gault said, adding that thieves generally are looking for scrap metal and copper. He said his office deals with such thefts weekly, but rarely from a church.

The thieves left a single unit at Union Grove Church, enabling that congregation to hold services in the still cooled auditorium, but limiting use of other sections of the building as Tennessee bakes in the low-90s. Casteel figured the unit was probably too heavy.

"They either got scared or their truck was all filled up," said Casteel.
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