In the week after nine individuals were shot dead at Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, six churches with predominately black congregations in five Southern states have burned. Three of the fires are being investigated as arson.
The FBI and the Agency of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are working with local authorities to discover the individuals who set them.
“They’re being investigated to determine who is responsible and what motives are behind them,” FBI spokesman Paul Bresson told BuzzFeed News. “I’m not sure there is any reason to link them together at this point.”
The church fires come days after police say Dylann Roof, 21, shot and killed nine individuals amid a prayer service on June 17 at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, including the church’s pastor. Rooftop has been charged with nine counts of homicide and possession of a gun.
Since the shooting, lawmakers and civil rights leaders have been focused on the backlash as people have been calling for the country to stop waving the Confederate flag. Now authorities are investigating the late church fires at predominately black churches, which the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that tracks hate crimes, reports “may not be an incident.”
The first fire came late June 21 when, police said, somebody set fire to some hay bales just outside the College Hill Seventh Day Adventist in Knoxville, Tenn. The church sustained minor damage. Its van was also burned.
“Horror, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going on?’” Pastor Cleveland Hobdy III told WATE-TV. Police told local news stations the fire is being investigated as arson but not as a hate crime.
Early June 23, God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Ga., was on fire. When firefighters arrived, the front doors were wired shut and they had to enter through a side door, the local newspaper the Telegraph reported.
“‘What’s the church doing on fire?’ That was my response to it,” Associate Pastor Jeanette Dudley told WMAZ-TV. “I just couldn’t believe it, and once I got here, I did. I cried. I cried for a little bit.”
The fire was ruled an arson, though police are not calling it a hate crime. “We are not seeing anything at this time that’s pointing us in that direction,” Sgt. Ben Gleaton told the Telegraph.