Report Issued on Church Burnings

The Christian Century, June 18, 1997 | Go to article overview

Report Issued on Church Burnings


On the first anniversary of the creation of the National Church Arson Task Force, its cochair said June 8 that as the result of joint efforts by the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Justice 199 suspects have been arrested in connection with 150 of the task force's 429 investigations of arsons, bombings or attempted bombings of houses of worship across the country between January 1, 1995, and May 27 of this year.

The 35 percent arrest rate is double the 16 percent rate of arrest for arsons in general and slightly higher than the arrest rate the task force reported in January. A total of 110 defendants have been convicted in federal and state courts in connection with fires at 77 houses of worship since January 1995. The task force's June report, released at a news conference, indicates that 17 new arson investigations were launched in March, 21 in April and 12 in May. The 199 persons who have been arrested include 160 whites, 34 African-Americans and five Hispanics. Eighty-three juveniles were among the total arrested.

Task force officials continue to conclude that there may have been some small, regional conspiracies to set some fires rather than any broadbased conspiracy. "Many of the fires were committed, we believe, by individuals acting alone," said James E. Johnson, assistant secretary for enforcement of the U.S. Treasury Department. 'We have not seen hard evidence that would support the theory that there is a nationwide conspiracy behind these fires." Johnson did say there has been "a higher incidence" of fires at African-American churches, which he said have been attacked disproportionately more than other houses of worship. Fourteen of the 25 defendants found guilty of federal offenses have been convicted of civil rights violations in cases in which there was evidence of racial motivation.

The task force's report notes that 25 houses of worship have been rebuilt as a result of joint efforts of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the National Council of Churches, the Congress of National Black Churches, Habitat for Humanity and other groups. The report stated that 65 congregations are under construction. But NCC spokeswoman Carol Fouke estimated that about 40 of the 90 churches that have been assisted by the council and other groups have been completely rebuilt or have purchased new buildings. …

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