A fire that damaged a predominantly black church in Georgia on Tuesday has been ruled as arson by investigators.
It was one of two instances this week which saw historically black churches set ablaze in the South, with the other in North Carolina on Wednesday, also suspected to be arson. The fires follow last week's terrorist attack on Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which saw nine black men and women killed and is being investigated as a hate crime.
As the Telegraph reported on Thursday, Macon-Bibb County Fire Sgt. Ben Gleason does not suspect the fire that damaged Macon's God's Power Church of Christ to be a hate crime. Officials also said that electronics and other equipment had been stolen from the church in two burglaries.
But, as Emma Green writes for the Atlantic, the historical context of arson targeting black churches must not be overlooked. Green says:
These fires join the murder of nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as major acts of violence perpetrated against predominantly black churches in the last fortnight. Churches are burning again in the United States, and the symbolism of that is powerful. Even though many instances of arson have happened at white churches, the crime is often association with racial violence: a highly visible attack on a core institution of the black community, often done at night, and often motivated by hate.
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In North Carolina, Charlotte Fire Department senior fire investigator David Williams told the Charlotte Observer on Wednesday that officials are still trying to determine if the arson in Briar Creek Road Baptist Church was a hate crime.
Marty Ahrens, a staffer at the National Fire Protection Association, told the Atlantic that new reporting standards have made it difficult to determine the motivation behind an arson. "To know that something is motivated by hate, you either have to know who did it or they have to leave you a message in some way that makes it very obvious," she said.
The investigations in North Carolina and Georgia are still ongoing, and they may end up in that broad category of fires of suspicious, but ultimately unknowable, origin that Ahrens described. But no matter why they happened, these fires are a troubling reminder of the vulnerability of our sacred institutions in the days following one of the most violent attacks on a church in recent memory.