A wave of church arsons captured the national media spotlight in 1996 when an average of six churches a week were set ablaze. A disproportionate share of them - 40 percent of the 297 burned that year - had black congregations. And it raised the specter of racial hatred, with black leaders and others talking of a possible national conspiracy to burn down black churches. Federal agents found no evidence of a conspiracy against African-American churches, though a small number of whites convicted of burning such churches had ties to hate groups. The isolation of many black churches in rural areas makes them easier targets.
While federal efforts to bring the situation under control have made some progress, it's too early to claim success because church arsons continue at a stunning rate of three to four a week, according to federal law-enforcement data.
The National Church Arson Task Force (NCATF), formed by President Clinton after the 1996 fires, reported in October that the rate of church burnings has begun to decline. The US government investigated 297 church arsons in 1996; 208 in 1997; and 114 through early September 1998. The share of black churches declined too - from 40 percent in 1996 to 25 percent in each of the past two years. Race may be a factor in some of the white church burnings, however, because some of those congregations are interracial.
But even if only 25 percent of the burned churches are black, that is a much larger percentage than blacks represent in the population of the United States.
Federal response to suspected arsons has been speeded up since the formation of the president's task force. There is better coordination among federal agencies investigating church burnings. The arrest rate in church arson cases is 34 percent - more than double the 16 percent rate of arrests nationally in all arson cases.
But the continued burning of churches remains a serious issue. And because national attention has long since moved on to other topics, it's harder for groups to marshal funds and volunteers to help congregations rebuild, says Harold Confer, director of Quaker Workcamps International (QWI), which has helped rebuild several churches in the South.
Many churches with small and low-income congregations are not getting the help they need to rebuild. This is important because such churches often aren't just places of worship but social centers, home to such children's programs as Head Start, and sometimes places for storing personal family records. Churches were one of the few black institutions allowed under slavery - burning a black church is burning a symbol of freedom.
According to the NCATF report on church arsons, motives include: "racism, religious hatred, random vandalism, mental health disturbances ... feuding [by church members] with ministers, retribution against religious authorities, parking or neighborhood disputes, covering up of burglaries, and financial profit."
Church arsons aren't the work of just one racial group. Since the federal task force began keeping track in January 1995, whites have accounted for two-thirds of the federal suspects in the burning of African-American churches; blacks account for the other third. Whites burned almost all the white churches.
What's involved in church burnings isn't only racial prejudice, but a twisted logic of white and black arsonists who believe destroying a church accomplishes some positive goal. Some arsonists go beyond even this warped logic and apparently are thrilled by fires.
A clear community response to arson is needed. I saw an example of community response in 1996 when I reported for The Christian Science Monitor on three black church burnings in southern Alabama, in and near the small, racially divided town of Boligee. National publicity brought an outpouring of funds and some 800 volunteers through groups such as QWI and area churches.
Young and old, men and women, black and white volunteers showed up from across the country to take up hammers and nails, some for the first time, to help rebuild the three churches and show that people far beyond Boligee cared about the members of those small congregations. No one has yet discovered how the three churches burned down or whether it was the work of whites or blacks. But the volunteers and local church members who helped made a clear statement that rang through Alabama and the US, via heavy media attention: Love is a stronger and bolder force than the hatred and confused thinking of arsonists.
Churches are still burning at a reduced, but still high, rate. But the volunteers have practically disappeared, uninformed because there is little media attention on the continuing problem. During National Arson Awareness Week last year Mr. Clinton said: "All arsons are not hate crimes, but all are hateful crimes. Whether destroying a life, a business, a home, a place of worship, or a national park, arson robs society of something that is precious and meaningful."
The national media must pay closer attention to the continuing church arsons. If a church burns, outsiders can help with funds and technical assistance, as the National Council of Churches (NCC) does. The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms list all the burned churches; groups like the NCC and QWI are in touch with congregations needing a hand. But rebuilding is also a chance to bring a community together and needs local volunteers and support as well.
Whenever a church burns, the community should respond quickly and openly, rallying to comfort members of the affected congregation, and making statements to the press, in schools, and at home over the dinner table, that arson is not acceptable, that it is a crime for which people go to prison, and that it is a moral wrong. Some of the convicted church arsonists are teenagers, others adults, but all need to know that their friends, family and others, won't tolerate or keep quiet about such behavior.
Robert M. Press is a former Monitor correspondent who is now working on a PhD in political science at the University of Florida in Gainesville.