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 racial hatred, or as part of a sectarian campaign of communal violence, or as a means of anonymously registering dissent.
In the United States, arson of black churches was common in south around the 1960s during the civil rights struggles. 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. 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).
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. 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 black metal fanatics.
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. He was released in 2009.
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. 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. Although arson began happening at white churches in January 1995, it was still mostly directed towards black churches. 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.
Church Arson Prevention Act
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. 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. 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.” 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.
National Church Arson Task Force
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. 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. 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. In a third year report in January 2000 to the president, NCATF opened investigation to another 157 cases making it a total of 827. 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.
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. Pamphlets addressing the pontiff left at the scene of one of the conflagrations read:
The next bombs will be in your cassock.
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, regardless of accusations of complicity. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet addressed the "strange" firebombing of the churches on radio, saying that:
In a democracy, people can express themselves as long as they do it in a peaceful way.
- 16th Street Baptist Church bombing
- 1999 Lake Worth, Texas church fire
- 2010 East Texas church burnings
- Cross burning
- R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul
- Ku Klux Klan
- Carpenters for Christmas
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