US acts to halt church burnings in the South

Janet Reno, the US Attorney-General, held talks yesterday with a delegation of black pastors whose churches have been set ablaze, as President Bill Clinton urged new laws to speed prosecution of those responsible for the wave of arson causing fear and racial tension across a swath of the South.

Speaking two days after the latest blaze, which reduced a 93-year-old wooden sanctuary in Charlotte, North Carolina, to ashes, Mr Clinton gave his backing to legislation before Congress that would make church-burning a federal crime, enabling investigators to go after it across state lines.

Devoting his entire weekly radio address to the issue, Mr Clinton said that thus far there was no evidence of a "national conspiracy" behind the burnings, 30 of which have occurred across the old Confederacy since 1995, the bulk of them concentrated in Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. But clearly, "racial hostility is the driving force behind these incidents".

For older Americans the spate of arson summons memories of the grimmest days of the civil-rights struggle, as Ku Klux Klansmen and other white supremacists tried to hold back desegregation by intimidation and terror. Then as apparently now, black churches were a preferred target.

The mood of race relations was "grave", Deval Patrick, the Assistant Attorney-General, said yesterday, noting that cases thus far solved showed that some individuals had carried out "pockets" of separate fires in a particular region. In some of them, Klan symbols were daubed across the rubble, in others Klan membership cards have been found on suspects.

In the past fortnight the force of FBI and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents assigned to the investigation has been doubled to 200, while Nationsbank, one of the biggest banks in the South, is offering $500,000 (pounds 330,000) for information leading to the arrest of arsonists.

But the black community is far from convinced that political parties have the will to act, especially in an election year. Though Bob Dole, the presumed Republican presidential candidate, yesterday denounced "these vicious acts of hate", the Republican-controlled Congress has displayed scant interest in the issue - just one day of perfunctory hearings last month, compared to weeks of public investigation into Whitewater, the Waco siege and other subjects calculated to embarrass the administration.

Blacks doubt the sincerity of the ATF, widely discredited by the "Good Old Boys Round-Up" in Tennessee, where past and present agents of the bureau were filmed making racial taunts and gestures. Some ministers whose churches have been burnt say their parishioners were treated not as victims but suspects by the ATF men, to the point of being forced to undergo lie- detector tests. But, said Mr Patrick, "we're going to solve every one of these fires" and if a conspiracy existed, "we're going to get to the bottom of it".

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