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Explainer: #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches

Jul 1, 2015

What is the #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches story about?

 Since June 17 there have been seven fires at predominantly black churches. Many people are questioning whether the fires are hate crimes because they occurred in the wake of the massacre of nine African-Americans in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The speculation has been shared on social media through the hashtag #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches.

Are all the churches in South Carolina?

 No, only two are in South Carolina. Two others are in Tennessee. There were also fires in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and California.

What are the names of the churches?

The churches and locations are:

1. Briar Creek Road Church in Charlotte, North Carolina

2. College Hill Seventh Day Adventist in Knoxville, Tennessee

3. Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina

4. God's Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia

5. Greater Miracle Apostolic Church in Tallahassee, Florida

6. Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tennessee

7. Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina.

Additionally, a fire was intentionally set at a church in Los Angeles that hosts Latino groups on June 29.

Who is investigating the fires?

Along with local and state authorities in each location, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is conducting investigations into five of the seven fires. The ATF frequently aids in arson investigations, and because of the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996, is called in whenever there is a suspicious burnings or desecration at a house of worship. The FBI also aids in such investigations when there is a suspicion the act was a hate crime.

Are the church fires connected? Were they caused by hate crimes?

Investigators have said there is no evidence any of the church fires are linked, or that racism was the motivation. So far there has also been no evidence that the church fires are hate crimes. According to the ATF:

ATF has special agents and certified fire investigators (CFIs) from several field divisions investigating the fires to determine cause and origin. We are in the early stages of these investigations, but at this time we have no reason to believe these fires are racially motivated or related.

Are all seven fires the result of arson?

No, only three are officially suspected to be arson. The other four are either accidents or show no signs of criminal intent. Here are the suspected causes of each of the fire:

Church: Briar Creek Road Church in Charlotte, North Carolina
Cause of fire: The investigation has determined the cause to be arson.
Damage assessment: Damage is estimated at more than $250 thousand. 

Church: College Hill Seventh Day Adventist in Knoxville, Tennessee
Cause of fire: Arson/Vandalism. A church van was set on fire and authorities found a pile of burning debris (i.e., bales of hay) in front of a door at the church.
Damage assessment: The van is a total loss, but the main church building was largely unaffected.

Church: Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina
Cause of fire: Undetermined, but investigators observed no element of criminal intent.
Damage assessment: The church building is a total loss.

Church: God's Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia
Cause of fire: Undetermined, but investigators believe the cause is arson. Additionally, the church was recently burglarized and its sound system was stolen.
Damage assessment: The church building is likely to be a total loss.

Church: Greater Miracle Apostolic Church in Tallahassee, Florida
Cause of fire: Officials believe it was an electrical fire.
Damage assessment: The fire resulted in a total loss for the church estimated at $700,000.

Church: Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tennessee
Cause of fire: Lightening striking the church steeple.
Damage assessment: The church was completely destroyed.

Church: Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina.
Cause of fire: Unknown at this time, though it doesn’t appear to be arson. Because of a recent storm in the area officials believe it could have come from a lightning strike.
Damage assessment: The church was completely destroyed.
(Note: This church was the scene of an arson by the KKK in 1995.)

How many church fires occur every year?

In the U.S., an average of two churches are intentionally set on fire every three days.

From 2007 to 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 1,780 structure fires each year on religious properties (churches, temples, mosques, religious education facilities, funeral parlors and related properties). Of those 16 percent (about 280 per year) are classified as intentional.

Who starts church fires and what are their motivations?

Currently, no group tracks the incidents of arson that occur in churches. But the National Church Arson Task Force Reports (NCATF) issued a report in September 2000 that can give us a snapshot of previous arsons. The NCATF) had opened investigations into 945 arsons, bombings or attempted bombings at places of worship. The results found:

• One-third of the incidents occurred at African-American places of worship.

• Forty-six of the 79 defendants (58 percent) convicted on federal charges related to arson or bombing were “motivated by bias.”

• While some arsons were racially motivated, they found the usual range of other motives such as vandalism, mental health issues, burglary cover-up, retribution against religious authorities, other disputes and financial profit.

• 39 percent of the arsonists were between the ages of 6 to 17 (14 percent were 6 to 13, 25 percent were 14 to 17).

• Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the arrestees were white males. However, more than a third (37 percent) of the people arrested for incidents at African-American places of worship were themselves African American. 

Joe Carter

Joe Carter serves as a Communications Specialist. Joe has an MBA from Marymount University and is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus. He and his wife, Misty, have one daughter, Samantha. Read More