Pew Research Study Shows Half of All Church Fires Since 1996 Were Arsons

Authorities are investigating a number of fires at African-American churches to determine if they were intentionally set. (Creative Commons photo by Erik Olson)
Authorities are investigating a number of fires at African-American churches to determine if they were intentionally set. (Creative Commons photo by Erik Olson)

About half of all the fires at houses of worship in the past 20 years were caused by arson, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Of the 4,705 reported fire incidents at houses of worship between 1996 and 2015, 2,378, or 51%, have been ruled intentional.

A recent spate of fires at six black churches in the South has renewed concerns about church arson. Many religious leaders and others have speculated that the fires may have been intentionally set, raising fears of racially motivated arson. As of July 14, ATF had ruled 29 of the 79 fires at houses of worship this year to be arson, though some investigations are ongoing.

While the share of church fires caused by arson has remained relatively stable over the years, the number of intentional church fires (including both arson and bombing incidents) has been dropping, as have church fires overall. Between 1996 and 2000, an average of 191 intentional fires were reported each year, accounting for 52% of all church fires. That average dropped to 74 intentional fires per year between 2010 and 2014, or 48% of all church fires.

Fires caused by arson are far more common at houses of worship than in most other kinds of structures. For instance, in 2013, only about 10% of all nonresidential fires and 5% ofresidential fires were intentionally set, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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SOURCE: Pew Research Center