A black church in Mississippi has been burned and vandalised with pro-Donald Trump graffiti, in what authorities have described as a “hateful and heinous act”.
Police and fire services were called to the scene at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in the city of Greenville on Tuesday night. They arrived to find parts of the structure had been set alight and the words “Vote Trump” had been spray-painted on the side of the building.
No one was hurt during the attack and an investigation has been launched into who was responsible.
The local community is said to be in shock over the attack on the church, which has existed for more than 100 years and has historically been a place of worship used by members of the black community.
The mayor of Greenville, Errick D Simmons, described the act as an “evil attack and strategy" to deprive black people of their civil rights, and said such an attack "should not happen in 2016".
During a news conference following the attack, Mr Simmons said: “At 9:16 last night, the Greenville fire department was dispatched to Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in regard to a reported fire.
"Four units responded to the scene to discover the church fully engulfed in flames. The church was vandalised with the words: ‘Vote Trump’.
“We have contacted state authorities of this hateful and heinous act and this matter is being investigated as a hate crime. This act is a direct assault on people’s right to freely worship.
"The matter is being investigated with all deliberate speed and we will not rest until the culprit is found and fully prosecuted."
When asked whether he believed the act was racially motivated, the mayor said: “The black church has always been a symbol of the black community and more importantly of rights and civil liberties that were deprived from African Americans. I see this as an attack on the black church, the black community.
“It appears to be a race crime. This used to happen in the fifties and sixties. But we are in 2016 and this should not happen. I see it as an evil attack and strategy to deprive, intimidate and put fear in the civil liberty and rights that folks enjoy in this country.”
Greenville’s fire chief, Ruben Brown, told the news conference the fire service had arrived on the scene to see there had been “heavy smoke and flames coming from the structure".
Mr Brown added: “The fire was primarily in the sanctuary of the church, which was heavily charred from front to back. But damage also sustained in other parts of the building.
“It took 12 minutes to extinguish, but it took an additional hour and a half to do savage overhaul and extinguish hot spots.”
The pastor of the Hopewell Missionary church, Caroline Hudson, described the sadness in the community following the attack. She said: “The act that has happened has left out hearts broken, but we are strong together.
"We are not angry, but our hearts are broken. We are sad about what happened. We now need to come together and show love for each other. Many people in the community have already come out to offer their assistance.”
Ms Hudson added that there had been no political statement made by the church leadership prior to the incident.
The police officer heading the investigation into the incident said the case was under investigation but confirmed it was being treated as a hate crime.
Police chief Wilson said: “We feel that the words that were placed on the church were an intimidation of someone’s right to vote whichever way they choose.
“That would definitely be considered a hate crime. This is a predominantly black church, and no one has the right to pressure someone in the way they decide to vote.”
The incident took place just over a week before the US presidential election, when Americans will decide whether they want Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton to become the next leader of the US.