Wednesday, November 2, 2016
GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Authorities say a fire has partially damaged a black church in Mississippi, and television images show "Vote Trump" spray-painted on an outside wall.
Fire Chief Ruben Brown tells The Associated Press that firefighters found flames and smoke pouring from the sanctuary of the Hopewell M.B Church just after 9 p.m. Tuesday.
He says the sanctuary sustained heavy damage, while the kitchen and pastor's office received water and smoke damage. He says investigators don't know yet if it is a case of arson.
Brown says there was also a political message spray-painted on the side of the church, but would not say what the message said.
"Vote Trump" is clearly visible in images of the church broadcast on television sites.
A Mississippi mayor is calling it a hate crime as arson investigators collect evidence at a black church that was heavily damaged by fire and tagged with "Vote Trump" in silver spray paint.
The Tuesday night fire heavily damaged the 200-member Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi.
Mayor Errick Simmons, speaking at news conference Wednesday, called the fire a "heinous, hateful, cowardly act."
"We consider it a hate crime is because of the political message which we believe was intended to interfere with worship and intimidate voters," Simmons said. "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 investigation.
"The fire caused heavy damage to the sanctuary and water and heat damage to the kitchen and pastor's study," Fire Chief Ruben Brown said.
It was put out within 12 minutes, but it took an hour and a half to extinguish hot spots, Brown said.
Arson investigators were at the scene Wednesday collecting evidence. Brown said the cause remains under investigation.
"We don't have any suspect at time, but we are possibly talking to a person of interest," Police Chief Delando Wilson said.
Witnesses were being interviewed and investigators were tracking down leads, he said.
"We will not rest until the culprit is found and fully prosecuted," the mayor said.
The congregation has existed for 111 years, and will rebuild on the same site, said Caroline Hudson, the church's pastor.
"The act that has happened has left our hearts broken but we are strong together," Hudson said. "We are not angry, but our hearts are broken."
Bishop Clarence Green called the fire troubling. He said that in his 21 years as bishop, the church had never been vandalized.
"The last time someone was at the church was Tuesday around 3", Green said.
Asked where the church members will meet this Sunday, Green said: "We'll have to work on that."