Church arson

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Church arson is the burning or attempting to burn of religious property. Around the world, arson is committed because empty churches are a soft target, or due to Excommunication or racial hatred, or as part of a sectarian campaign of communal violence, or as a means of anonymously registering dissent or anti-religious sentiment.

In the United States, arson of black churches was common in the south around the 1960s during the civil rights struggles.[1] Arson continued to proliferate, especially in the 1990s, damaging many black churches. As a result, Congress passed the Church Arson Prevention Act in 1996. In addition, President Bill Clinton formed the National Church Arson Task Force due to the sharp increase in church arson.[2] The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was created as a division of the Treasury Department in 1972 to investigate arson (it is now a part of the Department of Justice).[3]


The historic St. John's Anglican Church of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia caught fire in a suspected arson on halloween night, 2001. It was subsequently reconstructed, reopening on June 12th, 2005. [4] [5]

A serial church arsonist in the area of Merritt, British Columbia was arrested following the burning of the 143 year old Murray United Church.[6]


In the lead-up to Pope Francis's visit to Chile in January 2018, there were a number of arson attacks on churches in the capital, Santiago. Typically, the attacks involved firebombing accompanied by spraying of accelerants. A barrel believed to contain flammable liquid was discovered in one evangelical church. However the damage was insignificant and was quick and easy to repair. Pamphlets addressing the pontiff left at the scene of one of the conflagrations read: "The next bombs will be in your cassock."[7] The papal visit was dominated by issues surrounding the sex-crimes of Reverend Fernando Karadima, whose protégé Bishop Juan Barros was protected by the Pope, despite accusations of complicity.[8] Chilean President Michelle Bachelet addressed the "strange" firebombing of the churches on radio: "In a democracy, people can express themselves as long as they do it in a peaceful way."[9]


Following the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015, 45 churches were burned down by Islamists in Niger.[10]


On 6 June 1992, the Fantoft Stave Church, a wooden structure built in 1150 in Fortun, when the Vikings converted to Christianity, and moved to Bergen in 1883, was burnt down.[11] At first the fire was attributed to lightning and electrical failure. In January 1993 Varg Vikernes, also known as "Count Grishnackh", was interviewed by a local journalist in his apartment decorated with 'Nazi paraphernalia, weapons and Satanic symbols'. Vikernes, a proponent of White nationalism, survivalism and his Neo-völkisch ideology, has declared that he wants to blow up Blitz House and Nidaros Cathedral. He has publicly supported black metal fans burning down eight churches in Norway. He used a photo of the charred remnants of one church taken soon after the fire on his band Burzum's album entitled Aske (Norwegian for ashes). Following his statement the Norwegian authorities began to clamp down on the black metal scene.[12]

In 1994, Vikernes was found guilty of murder, arson and possession of illegal weapons (including explosives) and given the maximum sentence under Norwegian law of 21 years in prison.[12] He was released in 2009.[13]

United Kingdom[edit]

In 1973, St Mary's Church in Putney, London, was badly damaged in an arson attack.[14] On 20 October 1987 the church of St Peter's Church, Eaton Square in central London was set on fire by an anti-Catholic arsonist, who mistook the building for a Roman Catholic church.

In 1998 the church of St Bartholomew Allen's Cross in Northfield, a district of the UK's second city, Birmingham, was attacked by arsonists. The church was deemed beyond repair and demolished in 2008.[15]

United States[edit]


Within the Hate Crime Statistics Act, blacks are one of the groups that are the targets of the most hate crimes of any type, one of which is arson to their places of worship. An African-American scholar and historian, C. Eric Lincoln, wrote in his book, Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America, that the first recorded church arson to a black church happened in 1822 in South Carolina. These kind of arsons also occurred in Cincinnati in 1829 and through the 1830s in Philadelphia by white mobs. In the 1950s and 1960s, as civil rights activism and the desegregation of public places such as schools and restaurants were starting to increase, so was the burning and bombing of black churches. A more notorious bombing during that time happened to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four young girls were killed.[16] Church arson continued to be a problem in the southern United States in the early 1990s for African American churches. The culprits were generally young, white males with racism as their driving force, and were often under the influence of drugs and alcohol.[1] Although arson began happening at white churches in January 1995[citation needed], it was still mostly directed towards black churches.[16] The motive for these church burnings began crossing from racial hatred to other motives such as revenge, vandalism, and the influence of media. For example, a gang of Georgia teenagers who were high school dropouts, robbed, vandalized, and burned 90 churches that were both black and white. When interrogated, they told the police that if they couldn’t get money, they vandalized or burned the place as a result of this.[1]

Church Arson Prevention Act[edit]

The S. 1980 (104th): Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996 was introduced to Congress on June 19, 1996, but died because the Senate Committee found some places for improvement of the bill. It was sponsored by congressman Duncan Faircloth.[17] On May 23, 1996, the House of Representatives introduced H.R. 3525 (104th): Church Arson Prevention Act. The Act was passed by both houses in Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton on July 3, 1996. This bill became law number Pub.L. 104-155. It was sponsored by Republican Henry Hyde.[18] The bill was summarized by the Congressional Research Service as follows: “[the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996] makes Federal criminal code prohibitions against, and penalties for, damaging religious property or obstructing any person’s free exercise of religious beliefs applicable where the offense is in, or affects, interstate commerce.”[18] One of the changes in the bill was the sentence increase for “defacing or destroying any religious real property because of race, color, or ethnic characteristics…” from 10 to 20 years. It also changed the statute of limitations from five years to seven years after the date the crime was committed. It reauthorizes the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.[19]

National Church Arson Task Force[edit]

President Clinton created the National Church Arson Task Force (NCATF) to look for any connections among the church arsons and help take off some loads of overburdened state and local police forces.[20] According to a first year report to the president in June 1997, opened investigation to 429 cases of arson, bombings, or attempted bombings of churches since January 1, 1995.[21] In a second year report in October 1998 to the president, they opened 241 more cases that happened between January 1, 1995 and September 8, 1998 making a total of 670 opened investigations.[2] In a third year report in January 2000 to the president, NCATF opened investigation to another 157 cases making it a total of 827.[22] They helped to solve many of these arson and bombing cases. The Task Force is now disbanded, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) continues to investigate church burnings that occur. The number of church arsons decreased drastically (82 percent) from 1,320 in 1980 to 240 in 2002 according to the National Fire Protection Association.[23]

A 2013 National Fire Protection Association report found that 16% of fires at religious buildings were intentionally lit.[24][25]


After the Charleston church shooting in June 2015, a number of suspected church arson attacks were documented.[26][27][28][29][30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Booth, William. "In Church Fires, a Pattern but No Conspiracy". The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
  2. ^ a b "National Church Arson Task Force". The United States Department of Justice. The United States Department of Justice. Retrieved 12 November 2014.
  3. ^ Hui, Jonathan. "History of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)". EdLab. Teachers College, Columbia University. Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 18 November 2014.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ "3 Chile churches firebombed days before Pope Francis visit". ABC. January 12, 2018. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
  8. ^ "Pope shocks Chile by accusing sex abuse victims of slander". Associated Press. 19 January 2018. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
  9. ^ "Chile churches attacked before Pope Francis visit". BBC. 12 January 2018. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
  10. ^ "Charlie Hebdo: Niger protesters torched 45 churches - police". BBC. 19 Jan 2015.
  11. ^ Dregni, Eric (2008-09-22). In Cod We Trust, By Eric Dregni. p.185. ISBN 9780816656233. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  12. ^ a b Chris Campion (21 February 2005). "In the face of death". London: Guardian. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  13. ^ "Ute av fengsel". (in Norwegian). 22 May 2009. Archived from the original on 25 May 2009. Retrieved 23 May 2009.
  14. ^ "St Mary's Church, Putney - History of St Mary's". Official website. Retrieved 20 June 2018.
  15. ^ Dargue, William. "A History of Birmingham Churches: St Bartholomew Allen's Cross". Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  16. ^ a b "Reports and Curricula". The Leadership Conference. The Leadership Conference Education Fund. Retrieved 19 November 2014.
  17. ^ "S. 1890 (104th): Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996". Civic Impulse, LLC. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
  18. ^ a b "H.R. 3525 (104th): Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996". Civic Impulse, LLC. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
  19. ^ "Civil Rights Monitor". The Leadership Conference. The Leadership Conference Education Fund. Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 19 November 2014.
  20. ^ Slevin, Peter; Cannon, Angie. "Church Arsons Were Not A Racist Conspiracy, Panel Concludes Motives Ranged From Profit To Revenge, The Task Force Said. Incidents Are On The Rise, Except At Black Churches. Many Cases Are Unsolved". Retrieved 18 November 2014.
  21. ^ "National Church Arson Task Force". PDF file. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  22. ^ "NATIONAL CHURCH ARSON TASK FORCE ISSUES THIRD REPORT Arsons at Houses of Worship Continues to Decline". U.S. Department of Treasury. U.S. Department of Treasury. Retrieved 20 November 2014.
  23. ^ "Arson". Insurance Information Institute. Insurance Information Institute, Inc. Retrieved 20 November 2014.
  24. ^ Richard Campbell (June 2013). "U.S. Structure Fires in Religious and Funeral Properties".
  25. ^ "Report: Arson Rarely the Cause of Southern Church Fires". Insurance Journal. 12 Jul 2015.
  26. ^ "String of Nighttime Fires Hit Predominately Black Churches in Four Southern States". SPLC Hatewatch. 26 June 2015.
  27. ^ "Fire at east Charlotte church ruled arson".
  28. ^ "Following the Attack on Emanuel AME, Two Recent Fires at Black Churches Strike at the Heart of Black America". Atlanta Black Star. 26 June 2015.
  29. ^ ABC News. "Authorities Investigate Fire That Destroyed Black SC Church". ABC News.
  30. ^ "FBI investigating as six black churches burn down in seven days". The Independent. 29 June 2015.