GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) — The FBI opened a civil rights investigation into the arson and vandalism of an African-American church in Mississippi, where someone spray-painted “Vote Trump” in what the mayor called a “heinous, hateful, cowardly act.”
The pulpit and pews were burned, and soot stained the brick around some windows. Greenville Fire Chief Ruben Brown Sr. said the fire was set by someone and estimated the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church was 80 percent destroyed.
“We consider it a hate crime,” Mayor Errick Simmons said. “Because of the political message which we believe was intended to interfere with worship and intimidate voters.”
About 78 percent of Greenville’s 32,100 residents are African-American.
FBI spokesman Brett Car said it was too early to determine whether the fire should be investigated as a possible hate crime.
Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican who has been campaigning for Donald Trump, said “we expect a suspect will be identified and brought to justice.”
“First, anyone who burns a place of worship will answer to almighty God for this crime against people of faith. But they should also answer to man’s law,” Bryant said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat whose district includes Greenville, said the fire and graffiti “harkens back to a much darker day in Mississippi.”
“The political message of the vandalism is obviously an attempt to sway public opinion regarding the upcoming election,” he wrote in a statement. “I encourage all citizens not to be deterred by this cowardly act and exercise your right to vote at the ballot box.”
Mississippi’s top elections official, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, said people shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the church was vandalized for political reasons. Initial reports suggest “this is not of a political nature,” he told WDAM-TV (http://bit.ly/2eAUErb).
The fire chief said water from the hoses and heat from the fire also damaged the church’s kitchen and the pastor’s study. It was put out within 12 minutes, but it took an hour and a half to extinguish hot spots, he said.
“We don’t have any suspect at time, but we are possibly talking to a person of interest,” Police Chief Delando Wilson said.
The congregation has about 200 members and has existed for 111 years. Pastor Carilyn Hudson promised to rebuild.
“The act that has happened has left our hearts broken but we are strong together,” Hudson said. “We are not angry, but our hearts are broken.”
An $11,000 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever set the fire.