“It is being investigated as a hate crime,” Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons told TPM on Wednesday, calling the incident at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church a “hateful and cowardly act.”
“This is a direct assault on people’s right to freely worship,” Simmons added. “We are going to investigate the matter with all deliberate speed and will not rest until the perpetrator is arrested and prosecuted.”
Simmons said the Greenville Fire and Police Departments, the local district attorney and the Washington County Sheriff’s office, in addition to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the Jackson branch of the FBI, were collectively investigating the fire.
No suspect has yet been identified.
The main sanctuary of the church “sustained heavy fire and smoke damage,” as did the pastor’s study and kitchen, according to Simmons. Photos taken by Delta Daily News reporter Angie Quezada show dark smoke damage blackening the walls above burned out windows.
This is so heartbreaking. Not so much for the message on the building, but this is a church that's been around for so long in the community. pic.twitter.com/h8hJqoOgpH
— Angie Quezada (@imangieq) November 2, 2016
Simmons said he was in touch with Pastor Clarence Green and some of the congregants from the church.
“He is doing as well as well as one can be doing to come and see his church engulfed in flames,” Simmons said of Green. “Last night he interestingly had a positive message to say that we cannot solve hate with hate. We gotta love, and just rely on God.”
A GoFundMe page raising money to rebuild Hopewell Baptist has already received over $2,000.
Last year, in the wake of Dylann Roof's fatal shooting of nine parishioners at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a rash of fires were set at churches across the South and Midwest. At least seven were reported last summer.
Greenville is 78 percent African American, according to the 2010 census, and Simmons is the second black mayor of the town of around 32,000.