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Report: Church arsons still a problem

burning church

No widespread conspiracy noted

June 8, 1997
Web posted at: 10:05 p.m. EDT (0205 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A year-old task force formed to coordinate investigations into church burnings said Sunday that while arrest and conviction rates have increased, the attacks remain a problem.

Authorities have investigated 429 incidents of arson, bombings and attempted bombings at churches -- mainly African-American houses of worship -- since January 1995, the task force report said.


The National Church Arson Task Force -- created in June 1996, said in its first year's report that 199 people were arrested in connection with church burnings, and that federal, state and local prosecutors convicted 110 involving 77 fires.

"While we have made significant progress, the work of the task force is far from over," Assistant Treasury Secretary James Johnson -- co-chairman of the task force -- told a news conference.

"Fires at houses of worship continue. Arrests continue to be made. And defendants continue to be prosecuted and convicted."

The task force coordinates the efforts of federal, state and local law enforcement and includes officials from the Justice Department, the Treasury, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other agencies.

Johnson said the number of fires that ravaged churches frequented by both blacks and whites has "fallen dramatically" since President Clinton established the task force. There were 17 arson cases so far this year, compared with 49 cases for the same period last year.

"Although I can't say I'm completely satisfied, I have seen an improvement from last year," said the Rev. David Upton, pastor of Inner City Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The report said there was no evidence of a nationwide conspiracy and that motives ranged from racial hatred to vandalism to revenge.

This year investigators opened 82 investigations into arsons, bombings or attempted bombings. Nineteen involved predominately black churches and 63 involved other houses of worship.

In 1996 there were 298 incidents involving 117 black churches and 181 other houses of worship.

The report said 160 of the 199 persons arrested were white, 34 black, and five Hispanic.

Eighty-three were juveniles. And of the 81 suspects arrested for arsons at black churches, 55 were white, 25 black, and one Hispanic.

In Washington, Protestant clergy meeting to discuss church fires said the crisis has brought people together to help rebuild churches.

Said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches of Christ: "What was meant for evil has turned out to be used for good."

Correspondent Anthony Collins and Reuters contributed to this report.


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