After arson ravaged the Methodist church in Lakeland, Fla., parishioners, neighbors, and the community at large were at a loss to explain why anyone would target a house of God.
But the state fire marshall quickly assembled a team of investigators - who talked with convenience-store clerks, residents, anyone who might have seen anything suspicious on that February day - and came up with a motive. He soon arrested two men who had set the fire to hide their theft of church property.
Over the years, attacks on houses of worship, such as arson or bombings like the one last Sunday at a church in Danville, Ill., have been motivated by greed, jealousy, racial hatred, and a warped sense of amusement. But as the Florida case shows, renewed efforts by law-enforcement officers to solve such crimes are paying off.
Next month, the US government will report a significant drop in the number of church arsons last year compared with 1996, when church burnings hit their peak.
"We're starting to make some progress," says Tom Perez, deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights and a member of the National Church Arson Task Force, established by President Clinton in 1996.
Tougher new laws and the commitment of resources are speeding the progress, experts say. For one, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has made church bombings a top priority. And, with the help of the FBI, state and local investigators are now cracking 35 percent of church arson cases, compared with 16 percent of all other suspicious fires.
Of the Florida case, Maj. Steve Spradley, a law-enforcement official in Tallahassee, says: "It just took getting out and doing a lot of interviews."
So far, federal officials are tight-lipped about the bombing in Illinois, which ripped through the back of the First Assembly of God Church during the Sunday service, injuring 33. The blast was so strong it tore a 10-foot by 10-foot hole in the back of the church and blew debris as far as 300 feet.
"It was an extremely powerful device," says Jerry Singer, a special agent with ATF, which quickly determined that the explosion was caused by a bomb. Bomb fragments are now being tested for fingerprints and other clues at the bureau's lab in Rockville, Md.
The blast is a chilling reminder that churches and other sanctuaries for prayer are still targets. Since January 1995, there have been 607 arsons or attempted bombings. Half have been in the South, and one-third have involved predominantly African-American churches.
"Once a house of worship was considered sacred," says the Rev. Staccato Powell of the National Council of Churches in Washington. "I see [attacks on churches] as indicative of a larger problem - a sickness and decadence pervading the very fabric of society."
Attacks on the church do not occur in isolation from what's happening in the rest of society, he says, noting the recent spate of attacks on schools, such as last week's shooting at a high school in Springfield, Ore. "Churches and schools are typically considered safe havens," says Mr. Powell.
He says churches need to take a more active role in urging the government to dedicate resources to fighting violence in society and solving crimes that target churches. "We can't be passive," he advises.
Two years ago, during a burst of church burnings, some wondered whether there was a widespread conspiracy against churches. But Mr. Perez says there is no evidence to support that contention: "Sometimes it's a grudge against a church, sometimes it's juveniles with too much alcohol or some other drug, sometimes it's someone trying to divide a community along racial lines."
Three church arson cases in Florida illustrate the diversity of motive. Two years ago, state investigators arrested John David Knowlton for setting a fire that destroyed the Evangelist Temple Church of God in Marianna. He pled guilty, saying he set the fire because of the loud music from the church, which was his neighbor. Then a year ago, police arrested a juvenile Satanic group for setting church fires in Jacksonville. In February, they arrested the two men charged with the arson and robbery.
RELIGIOUS groups complain that people convicted of church arson sometimes get light sentences. Rose Johnson-Mackey, director of programs for the National Coalition for Burned Churches in Charleston, S.C., cites the example of two former Ku Klux Klansmen, who were convicted two years ago of burning down the Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, S.C. "One of them is already out," says Ms. Johnson-Mackey. "Sometimes people are just getting community service for burning down churches."
When the church fires became national news two years ago, Congress enacted tougher penalties for arson that was motivated by racial intolerance. At the same time, Mr. Clinton formed the Arson Task Force. Many states enacted tougher laws as well.
The government also provided $10 million to help targeted churches rebuild. So far, about 100 churches are rebuilding using about $1.8 million in loan guarantees.
Some states have formed church arson task forces, which are teaching church leaders how to organize church-watch programs and make it harder to break into locked buildings. Earlier this year, Florida held such statewide meetings. "There was very good attendance," says Major Spradley. "Everyone was taking this very seriously."