WASHINGTON, D.C.: An overnight fire that destroyed a small-town African-American church in South Carolina once torched by Ku Klux Klan members is reviving fears that arsonists are targeting places of worship with black congregations.
Many black churches have suffered fire damage in the weeks since the murders of nine churchgoers at traditionally black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
A federal official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press earlier this week that arson was not involved in the fire at Mount Zion.
Of the other black Southern churches struck by fire in recent days, three – in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina – have been described as acts of arson or suspected arson, according to United States news media.
“Preliminary investigations indicate that two of the fires were started by natural causes and one was the result of an electrical fire”, Newman said in a statement.
In a separate statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman said authorities were looking into the blazes across five states, but also found no links between any of them. They were sentenced to serve prison sentences of nearly two decades. These included houses of worship of all religions as well as funeral parlors and religious schools.
Almost a third of the fires were caused by cooking devices. About 16 percent were intentionally set. The fire was likely caused by a tree limb falling on power lines. The cause has not been determined, but investigators observed no element of criminal intent. Investigators ruled it an arson, but they say nothing so far has indicated a hate crime.
“We haven’t ruled anything in or anything out at this point”, added Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent Craig Chilcott, as sniffer dogs helped police and fire investigators comb through the church ruins. The ATF and other agencies said that it looked like vandalism. ATF is investigating but no ruling has been made. The church had recently been broken into, and air conditioners and sound systems were stolen.