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Molotov Cocktails, Gasoline Found at Site of Latest Church Fire

July 1, 1996

MAYSVILLE, N.C. (AP) _ Traces of Molotov cocktails and gasoline were found in the debris of a black church that went up in flames, and an official said today that it had been formally ruled an arson fire.

The fire, one of three suspicious church fires Sunday, was reported at about 1:15 a.m. Sunday at the St. James AME Zion Church.

``It’s been ruled an arson,″ Al Stevens, special agent in charge of the coastal district for the State Bureau of Investigation, said today.

Federal authorities were investigating the fire, but they were reluctant to link it to any other suspicious blazes.

``At the present time, we don’t see anything which links this fire to any other fire being investigated in North Carolina,″ Zebedee Graham of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms told The Daily News of Jacksonville.

``But, we don’t rule out anything. We’ll keep an open mind as we are conducting the investigation.″

Authorities found beer bottles stuffed with paper and pews covered with gasoline, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

The fire’s flames melted the upholstery on the pews and scorched the floor, Sheriff Reynolds Mason said. But the church’s cinder-block walls prevented the fire from destroying the sanctuary or the adjacent fellowship hall.

The church is in a rural, wooded area of few homes about six miles outside Maysville and about 100 miles southeast of Raleigh.

Over the past 18 months, fires have been reported in at least 40 predominantly black churches across the nation, mostly in the Southeast. Federal authorities have been investigating suspicious fires at a roughly equal number of white churches during the same period.

Elsewhere on Sunday:

_Fire was set Sunday to a black church under construction in Greenville, Miss., but police said they believed young pranksters were to blame and that the blaze was not racially motivated.

The fire at the construction site of the House of Prayer was reported about 8:10 p.m. Sunday, but it was quickly contained and only minor damage was reported, Fire Chief Elie Nelson said.

_An arson fire severely damaged Sacred Heart Catholic Church, a predominantly white church in the northeast Kansas town of Bonner Springs.

_Former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver led an interdenominational church service in Santa Rosa, Calif., that raised money and offered prayers for the torched churches.

_Roman Catholic Cardinal John O’Connor of New York said the church fires were especially sad because of the role of the church in black society.

``That is all they had during slavery,″ O’Connor said at a Mass in New York City attended by several prominent black clergymen. ``The church therefore becomes a tremendous symbol.″

Meanwhile, South Carolina investigators want to take a look at a 26-page booklet that describes blacks as cursed and calls for the destruction of worship sites to prevent ``race mixing.″

The booklet, ``The Bible Answers Racial Questions,″ surfaced at a recent rally of the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, The (Columbia) State reported Sunday.

The Klan is being sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, for conspiracy to encourage members to burn two black churches in South Carolina.

Two men charged in the suit are said to be Klan members who attended rallies near the churches shortly before the fires.

Horace King, Grand Dragon of the South Carolina chapter of the Christian Knights, denied that the Klan encouraged the torchings.

``I don’t support burning no churches,″ King said. ``There is a conspiracy, but it’s against the white race.″

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