Pew: Half of All Church Fires in Last 20 Years Were Result of Arson

An Investigator with the State Police examines the burned ruins of the Mt. Zion AME Church July 1, 2015 in Greeleyville, South Carolina. Federal and state agencies are investigating a recent string of church fires in the South that have occured since the church massacre in nearby Charleston, South Carolina. …
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The Pew Research Center finds that over the past twenty years, more than half of all fires in U.S. houses of worship were intentionally set as acts of arson, far more than the percentage of fires in other buildings.

Between 1996 and 2015 there were 4,705 reported fires in houses of worship in the United States, of which 2,378, or slightly more than 50 percent, were found to be the work of arsonists.

Many of the attacks on churches have been religiously or racially motivated, the Center notes, such as a string of arson attacks at six predominantly black churches in the Saint Louis area this month, although federal law enforcement agencies have ruled these fires to be unrelated and police are as yet unwilling to say whether the attacks are racially driven. Acts of arson are also significantly more common in churches than in other structures, and in recent years only 5 to 10 percent of residential and non-residential fires were intentionally set, as compared to the 51 percent of church fires that were deemed acts of arson.

Church burnings have also been more common in the south, a sad legacy to the years of the civil rights movement when church arson was a relatively common occurrence.

The number of intentionally set church fires began to increase during the 1990s, prompting the U.S. Congress to enact legislation to try to stem the tide of religious and racially based arson, especially after House Committee found in 1996 that a considerable percentage of church burnings took place at black churches in the South.

That same year President Bill Clinton signed the Church Arson Prevention Act, as well as setting up the National Church Arson Task Force, which received the mandate to investigate the cause of all reported fires at houses of worship.

Since then, the average number of arson attacks on churches has decreased significantly, from an average of 191 acts of church arson between 1996 and 2000, to an average of 74 intentional fires per year between 2010 and 2014.

Nonetheless, despite the decrease in the number of intentionally caused church fires, the percentage has remained relatively stable, always hovering around 50% of all fires, the Pew Center reported.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome


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