FBI opens civil rights probe for fire at black church

The church, set on fire Tuesday night, was also defaced with the words “Vote Trump.”

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GREENVILLE, Miss. — The FBI has begun a civil rights investigation into a fire that heavily damaged a black church that was also tagged “Vote Trump” in silver spray paint.

Asked whether it’s being investigated as a hate crime, agency spokesman Brett Carr wrote in an email that it’s too early to determine what type of crime it could be.

The fire Tuesday night heavily damaged the Hopewell M.B. Church in Greenville, Mississippi.

Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons told a news conference Wednesday that he considers the fire a hate crime because of the political message, which he believes was intended to interfere with worship and intimidate voters. He also described it as a “hateful and cowardly act.”

Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican who has been campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, issued a statement saying anyone who burns a place of worship will answer to God and should also answer to “man’s law.” He said he expects whoever did it to be arrested.

Greenville is a city of about 32,000 on the Mississippi River in central Mississippi. About 78 per cent of the residents are African-American.

But neither Simmons nor Fire Chief Ruben Brown has labeled the fire a case of arson, although Brown has said arson investigators are at the scene. Brown said the fire caused heavy damage to the sanctuary, and water and heat damage to the kitchen and pastor’s study.

Pastor Caroline Hudson said the 111-year-old church congregation will rebuild on the same site.

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