A black church in Mississippi has been burned and spray-painted with “Vote Trump” on an outside wall, according to US authorities.
The fire in the city of Greenville comes less than a week before a presidential election that pits Republican Donald Trump against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Fire Chief Ruben Brown told the Associated Press news agency that firefighters found flames and smoke pouring from the sanctuary of the Hopewell MB Church just after 9pm on Tuesday.
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 (@AngieQ_tv) November 2, 2016
Brown said the sanctuary sustained heavy damage, including in the kitchen and pastor’s office. He said investigators do not know yet if it is a case of arson.
In a statement, the FBI’s office in Jackson, the state capital, said it was working “with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners to determine if any civil rights crimes were committed”.
There were no reports of injuries.
‘Hateful and cowardly act’
The mayor of Greenville, Errick Simmons, described the incident as a “hateful and cowardly act”.
He said local officials consider the fire a hate crime because of the political message he believes was intended to interfere with worship and intimidate voters.
“The act that happened left our hearts broken,” Pastor Carolyn Hudson told a news conference, noting that the church has a 111-year history.
A donation drive on a crowdfunding website raised more than $41,000 for repairs of the church within six hours on Wednesday.
“The animus of this election cycle combined with the potent racial history of burning black churches as a political symbol makes this event something we must not ignore,” the fundraiser said.
Last year, there were several fires at predominantly black churches in southern states following the shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June. Nine people were killed.
The trial for the suspect in that case, Dylann Roof, is scheduled to begin on Monday.