Fires not only at black churches

Sporadic attacks on synagogues, mosques, too

June 19, 1996
Web posted at: 11:50 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The wave of fires at black churches around the South has prompted theories of racist or hate group conspiracies and galvanized federal authorities to mount a concerted campaign to nab those responsible.

But figures on the number of churches burned, and of those determined to be cases of arson, depends on which organization is tracking the information.

"The news coverage has hit upon black Southern Baptist churches, but there are synagogues being hit, white churches, and other denominations," said Rick Gilman, of the Insurance Committee for Arson Control, a non-profit association supported by the property casualty industry.

Stats graphic

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is one of the federal agencies leading the investigation into the church burnings. But even that agency is having trouble determining the exact number of church fires for any specific race or denomination.

According to the ATF, as of Wednesday, the bureau has 55 open investigations of church fires (all races and denominations) that have occurred nationwide since January, 1995.

In the same time period, ATF investigators worked on 46 fires at predominantly black churches in the states of Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia.

Eight of those cases ended in arrest; 10 were determined to be accidental fires.

ATF agent Tom Hill says the bureau hopes to have a complete list Wednesday of all church burnings. But how exhaustive that list will be is still not known.

A report called "Black Church Burnings in the South" based on a six-month preliminary investigation was published by the Center for Democratic Renewal, a non-profit, multi-racial organization working on social justice issues.

The report stated that 80 black and multi-racial churches have been burned, firebombed or vandalized since January, 1990.

The report concluded the church burnings were the result of "domestic terrorism" and "hate crimes," and claimed the majority of people arrested for the attacks are white.

The group Klanwatch says the number of black church fires between December 1995 and June 17, 1996, is 22. Since 1989, the Montgomery, Alabama-based group reports 38 incidents of arson at black churches in 10 states. The group is the investigative arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the rate of incidences of church fires is declining. In 1980, the NFPA said, there were 1,420 fires in churches and related properties, compared to 520 such fires in 1994, the lowest in 15 years.

Those figures are for churches of all denominations, all races and all regions of the country.

The Anti-Defamation League tracks attacks at Jewish institutions, including synagogues, educational buildings or any facility with Jewish ties.

The group says these attacks appear to be on the rise, with one attack reported in 1993 and 12 reported in 1994.

Muslim mosques have also suffered from fire and vandalism. The Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., has a tally of four fires, three of which were ruled to be cases of arson. Since 1995, there have been 13 reported cases of vandalism and desecration of mosques.


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