U.S. law enforcement authorities have launched a civil rights investigation after an African American church was burned and spray-painted with the words "Vote Trump" in the southern state of Mississippi.
The 111-year-old Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, suffered heavy water and smoke damage in the fire late Tuesday.
"We consider it a hate crime... because of the political message which we believe was intended to interfere with worship and intimidate voters," Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons said Wednesday. "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 probe.
The city of about 33,000 near the Arkansas border is 78 percent African American, according to the most recent census. Surrounding Washington County is 71 percent black.
U.S. Representative 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 an emailed statement." I encourage all citizens not to be deterred by this cowardly act, and exercise your right to vote at the ballot box."
The church's pastor, Caroline Hudson, said the 200-member congregation will rebuild the church at the same site.
"The act that has happened has left our hearts broken but we are strong together," Hudson said.