GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Somebody set the fire that heavily damaged an African-American church that was also spray-painted with the phrase “Vote Trump,” and an $11,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the conviction of whoever did it, a Mississippi fire chief said Wednesday.
The FBI has opened a civil rights investigation of the Tuesday night fire at the 200-member Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, and Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons called the fire and graffiti a hate crime.
Officials announced the reward and the investigators’ conclusion that the fire was arson at the church, Greenwell Fire Chief Ruben Brown Sr. said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
The church’s red brick walls still stand, but the pulpit and pews are burned black, and soot stains the brick above and next to some windows. Brown estimated that it was “80 percent destroyed.”
“It definitely will have to be reconstructed from front to back,” he said.
Simmons called the arson a “heinous, hateful, cowardly act.”
“We consider it a hate crime … because of the political message which we believe was intended to interfere with worship and intimidate voters,” Simmons said. “This act is a direct assault on people’s right to freely worship.”
The mayor said the FBI and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation are assisting the investigation in the Mississippi River city, where about 78 percent of the 32,100 residents are African-American.
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 culprits should be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.
State FBI spokesman Brett Car said the agency is “working with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners …read more