The FBI has launched a civil rights investigation into the arson and vandalism of a black church in Greenville, Miss., where someone spray-painted “Vote Trump” on the side of the damaged building, the Associated Press reports.
According to the report, approximately 80 percent of the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church was destroyed in the blaze.
Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons blasted the attack as a “hate crime” and called the political message left behind a form of voter intimidation.
“We consider it a hate crime,” Simmons said. “Because of the political message, which we believe was intended to interfere with worship and intimidate voters.”
As AP notes, about 78 percent of Greenville’s 32,100 residents are African American.
FBI spokesperson Brett Car had said that it was still too early to determine whether the blaze should be investigated as a possible hate crime.
According to AP, Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, whose district includes Greenville, said that the fire and the vandalism “harkens back to a much darker day in Mississippi.”
“The political message of the vandalism is obviously an attempt to sway public opinion regarding the upcoming election,” Thompson said in a statement. “I encourage all citizens not to be deterred by this cowardly act and exercise your right to vote at the ballot box.”
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who has been campaigning for Donald Trump, also slammed the attack, saying, “We expect a suspect will be identified and brought to justice.”
“First, anyone who burns a place of worship will answer to almighty God for this crime against people of faith. But they should also answer to man’s law,” Bryant said in a statement.
However, Mississippi’s top elections official, Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman, a Republican, encouraged people not to jump to conclusions in assuming that the church was vandalized for political reasons, saying that initial reports suggest “this is not of a political nature.”
Police Chief Delando Wilson told AP that currently there is no suspect in the case, but authorities are possibly talking to a person of interest.
As AP notes, the church, which serves about 200 parishioners, has existed for 111 years.
“The act that has happened has left our hearts broken but we are strong together,” the Rev. Carilyn Hudson said, while promising to rebuild. “We are not angry, but our hearts are broken.”
Meanwhile, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Donald Trump campaign has also taken a stance against the attack on the church, releasing a statement saying, “We are deeply saddened for the members of the Hopewell M.B. Church community and condemn in the strongest terms this terrible act that has no place in our society. We are grateful that no one was hurt and we urge witnesses with any information to come forward and help bring justice to those who are responsible.”
An $11,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the alleged arsonist.