Authorities in South Carolina are investigating the cause of a fire that destroyed an African-American church about 100 kilometers from Charleston, where a mass shooting, allegedly motivated by racial hatred, killed nine people last month during a church Bible study class.
Fire broke out Tuesday night at the church in the small town of Greeleyville during a thunderstorm. Lightning is considered one of the possible causes of the blaze; local authorities say they have not ruled out other possibilities, but one account from The Associated Press quotes a federal official as saying arson apparently was not involved.
No one was injured in the blaze at Mount Zion AME Church, officials told reporters at a news conference, but they said the church structure was a total loss.
The same Greeleyville church had been burned down 20 years ago in an arson attack by members of the white supremacist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan. Only the church's brick outer walls were left intact Wednesday, but authorities said no one was injured.
The Greeleyville fire was at least the sixth blaze at a religious center with a predominantly black congregation since the mass killings in Charleston on June 17. All of the fires were in the American South, either in South Carolina or other nearby states.
Authorities have said two of the six fires were set deliberately, but there has been no claim of responsibility or other indication that the fires were related. Nevertheless, questions have been raised about whether the incidents were coincidental or could have been deliberate.
Greeleyville's mayor, Jessie Parker, said he could vividly recall the fire at his town's A.M.E. church in the 1990s.
"To see the church in flames again, it just, it gives you ill feeling," Parker said at the news conference. "We don't know what happened, what started the fire."
During the 1990s, African-American churches in the United States were targeted for arson, bombings or other attacks about 670 times, according to groups that monitor such incidents.
Listing of churches where fires broke out during the past two weeks:
- Greater Miracle Apostolic Church in Tallahassee, Florida, June 26.
- Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina, June 26.
- Briar Creek Road Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, June 24.
- College Hill Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, June 21.
- God's Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia, June 21.
Some material for this report came from Reuters.