Davie Hinshaw / The Charolette Observer / AP Photo

FBI probes series of fires at black churches

Blazes follow attack on black congregation in Charleston, but cause of the fires remains uncertain

Federal authorities say they are investigating recent fires at predominantly black churches in southern U.S. states, though the blazes do not appear to be directly related.

A federal law enforcement official said a Friday fire at Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina does not appear to have been intentionally set. The official had direct knowledge of the investigations but spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity on Monday.

The official said another fire Wednesday at a Charlotte, North Carolina, church appeared to be set by vandals, and investigators have found no graffiti or other evidence that it was racially motivated.

The string of church fires follow a shooting on June 17 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal, a prominent black church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine black Americans dead.

Although there have been six fires at black churches in the wake of the Charleston attack, only three of them appear to be certain acts of arson, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that tracks hate crimes and hate groups across the United States.

In Georgia, the FBI special agent in charge, Britt Johnson, said Monday that authorities are also looking into whether a June 23 fire at God's Power Church of Christ in Macon could be a hate crime, which is common practice for fires at houses of worship.

"Opening a preliminary inquiry doesn't suggest that a hate crime has occurred, but rather ensures that it is getting additional scrutiny for hate crime potential," Johnson said in a statement.

Another fire on June 21 gutted the College Hill Seventh Day Adventist church, a predominantly black congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee. Knoxville Police spokesman Darrell DeBusk had said before the FBI’s announcement Monday the fire was not being investigated as a hate crime.

Federal investigators are tracking the Knoxville blaze and several others in an arson database to determine whether there are any trends or similarities, but none of the fires appear to be related, Michael Knight, a special agent with Tennessee Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told The AP.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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