A 21-year old white man, Holden Matthews, has been arrested for setting fire to three Baptist churches in Louisiana with majority African American congregations. The St. Mary, Greater Union, and Mount Pleasant Baptist churches were burned down successively between 26 March and 4 April. No one was injured, but the incident reflects a growing concern over the safety of places of worship.
The governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, said, “It’s especially painful because it reminds us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear … These were evil acts. Hate has no place in Louisiana.” Ernest Hines, the deacon at Mount Pleasant church, compared the current climate to the 1960s, but said that “we don’t need to jump to conclusions. We need to let them investigate, let the evidence come out.” However, State Fire Marshal H. Browning told press that the arsonist might have been influenced by “black metal”, a musical subgenre with an “associated history with church burnings.”
While authorities have not yet labelled the attacks as racist, the BBC has reported that Matthews commented on Facebook posts regarding Kristian Vikernes, a neo-Nazi responsible for church burnings in Norway during the 1990s. Derrick Johnson, the President for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), released a statement condemning the attack as “domestic terrorism.” He said that, “The spike in church burnings in Southern states is a reflection of the emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country. But this is nothing new.”
It will come as little surprise that Matthews is suspected of holding racist views. His arrest follows a growing body of attacks on places of worship in the US. This includes the attacks at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, the Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston in 2015, the Overland Park Jewish Center in 2014, and the Oak Creek Sikh temple in 2012. Each of these attacks was carried about by a white supremacist. In 2017, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that hate crimes in the US had risen by more than 17% that year, concluding that the increase was fuelled by more frequent attacks on religious and racial minorities. This was the third year in a row that hate crimes had increased, and was the largest single increase since 2001.
The recent attack by a white supremacist at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, reflects the global spread of targeted hatred. Following this, the UK government has doubled the security fund for religious buildings. More than a third of the fund has been allocated for the protection of mosques. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 11% of countries worldwide had government actors that used nationalist rhetoric against members of particular religious groups. This was a 6% increase from the previous year.
The osmosis of extreme rhetoric into mainstream politics gives a worrying frame to these acts of terror. The statement released by right-wing Australian senator, Fraser Anning, underlined this. In it, he effectively blamed the Christchurch shooting on “the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate.” Furthermore, the attack brought forward more evidence of a white supremacist neo-Nazi community united across borders by the freedom of the internet. While fanatics in established politics can always be removed through the ballot box, there is still limited awareness about the extent of hate spread through the internet and effective ways it can be curbed.