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First report due on church arson investigation

church June 8, 1997
Web posted at: 12:22 p.m. EDT (1622 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Clinton receives the results Sunday of the first year of an investigation he ordered into a series of arson fires at places of worship.

In its report, the presidential task force is expected to say arrests in such crimes were up 35 percent and 90 churches were either rebuilt or under construction.

Over an 18-month period beginning in January 1995, scores of churches -- mostly in the South and many African-American -- burned to ashes.

The burnings became politically controversial. Some African-American leaders accused the Republican-controlled Congress of fostering a climate of racism that set the stage for arson attacks.

Some of the church fires across the U.S. earlier this year
movie icon
Greensboro, AL 24 sec./992K QuickTime movie
Rocky Point, NC 8 sec./352K QuickTime movie
Charlotte, NC 10.5 sec./450K QuickTime movie
Enid, OK 19 sec./800K QuickTime movie

"Those in blue suits who use thinly veiled race symbols -- when they say welfare and crime and three strikes and anti- affirmative action -- they are sending messages more profound their language," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said at the height of the controversy.


Clinton -- a Southern president -- cited his own memories of small rural churches and condemned the burnings.

"We need every person from every walk of life in all faiths in America to speak up against this," the president said.

Denying accusations of exploiting the fires for political gain, Clinton met with Southern governors and federal lawmakers from both parties to forge a strategy to prevent more burnings.


The governors, like Virginia Republican George Allen and North Carolina Democrat Jim Hunt, pledged to send a message to those responsible that such arsons were not acceptable.

Congress passed legislation doubling the federal jail sentence for burning a church. The law also gave the government more jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute arson at religious buildings.

Making that strategy work is more complicated. But some hold that like a phoenix, hope for healing can rise from the ashes as people join the effort to rebuild.

"We've got an amazing coalition with the Jewish community, the Catholic community, the Protestant Christian community," said the Rev. Mac Charles Jones last fall.

CNN's Shoshana Taylor contributed to this report.


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