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Church arsons are more common than you think

POSTED: July 8, 2015 12:09 p.m.
Shelby Slade/

Although arson is blamed for at least three fires over the past two weeks at several predominantly black churches in Southern states, a blaze that destroyed Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina was not deliberately set.

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Since the shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, six black churches in the South have burned.

This may seem coincidental, but church fires are more common than many would think.

In one week, the country will see three major arsons, a purposely set fire that causes significant property damage, at churches in the U.S., Christopher Ingraham reported for The Washington Post, although many of the cases opened in recent weeks have not been closed or classified as arson.

While this number is high, it shows a significant decrease in arsons since the 1980s when there were 3,500 church arsons that year. There were only 1,700 in 2011, Ingraham explained.

One Southern church was burned by the Ku Klux Klan during a string of highly publicized church burnings in 1995, David A. Graham wrote for The Atlantic. Twenty years later, Mt. Zion Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, burned again.

While investigators are still saying the fire that destroyed the African-American church could have been caused by lightning in the area, many are saying it should be investigated as a hate crime.

A report from the National Church Arson Task Force said 16 percent of church fires from 2007 to 2011 were arson, Leah Libresco reported for FiveThirtyEight. As of August 15, 2000, 46 people had been convicted of bias-motivated church arsons or bombings.

However, this number is lower than what it might be because fires are misclassified or do not result in arrest, she reported.

“Attacks on churches can have greater effects than those on individuals because they represent an attack on a community and often destroy or damage the place where a community gathers to mourn after any other kind of attack,” Libresco wrote.
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