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COLUMBIA, S.C. – An African-American church in South Carolina that was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan in 1995 caught fire again Tuesday night, though authorities said it was too soon to tell if arson was behind the latest blaze, which broke out on a night of frequent storms. No one was believed to be inside at the time.
The fire at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal church in Greeleyville broke out at a time when federal authorities are investigating blazes at several other predominantly black churches, but so far the fires don't appear to be related.
Greeleyville is about 50 miles north of Charleston, where a pastor and nine members of a historic black church were fatally shot on June 17 in what authorities are investigating as a hate crime.
Agents from the State Law Enforcement Division were on their way to the church before the fire was out, Division Chief Mark Keel said. But he said they will have to wait until the hot spots are extinguished before using dogs and other investigative tools to try and figure out what started it. He said investigators will be on the scene first thing Wednesday morning.
"We do know they apparently had some strong storms," Keel said. "Talked to a guy who said they had a lot of lightning down there tonight. I don't know whether that anything to do with it at all."
The image of orange flames coming from the same church the KKK burned down 20 years ago brought up painful memories, said Williamsburg County Councilman Eddie Woods Jr., who got out of bed to drive to the church after hearing about the fire.
"That was a tough thing to see," Woods said. "It is hurting those people again. But we're going to rebuild. If this was someone, they need to know that hate won't stop us again," Woods said.
All of the fires currently under investigation broke out after the fatal shootings at Charleston's historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Dylann Storm Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder, and the FBI is investigating possible links between the 21-year-old white man and a hate manifesto that showed up online along with photos of him.
Mount Zion AME Church burned down on June 20, 1995. Two Ku Klux Klan members pleaded guilty to starting that fire and a second at another predominantly black church. They were each sentenced to nearly two decades in prison.
President Bill Clinton spoke at the church in 1996, saying churches are sacred places that must be protected and calling for people not to respond to a string of racially motivated church fires with the same hatred that drove the people who started the blazes.
"Our hearts must be purged of any temptation to go back to those times of division that cost us so dearly, especially here in the Southern part of our country," Clinton said.
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