"Vote Trump" is spray painted on the side of the fire damaged Hopewell M.B. Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.  (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

“Vote Trump” is spray painted on the side of the fire damaged Hopewell M.B. Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)


GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi mayor is calling it a hate crime as arson investigators collect evidence at a Black church that was heavily damaged by fire and tagged with “Vote Trump” in silver spray paint.

The Tuesday night fire heavily damaged the 200-member Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi.

Mayor Errick Simmons, speaking at news conference Wednesday, called the fire a “heinous, hateful, cowardly act.”

“We consider it a hate crime is because of the political message which we believe was intended to interfere with worship and intimidate voters,” Simmons said. “This act is a direct assault on people’s right to freely worship.”

The mayor said the FBI and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation are assisting the investigation.

“The fire caused heavy damage to the sanctuary and water and heat damage to the kitchen and pastor’s study,” Fire Chief Ruben Brown said.

Area residents and church members observe as authorities investigate the fire damaged Hopewell M.B. Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. "Vote Trump" was spray-painted on an outside wall of the black member church. Fire Chief Ruben Brown tells The Associated Press that firefighters found flames and smoke pouring from the sanctuary of the church just after 9 p.m. Tuesday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Area residents and church members observe as authorities investigate the fire damaged Hopewell M.B. Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. “Vote Trump” was spray-painted on an outside wall of the black member church.  (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)


It was put out within 12 minutes, but it took an hour and a half to extinguish hot spots, Brown said.

Arson investigators were at the scene Wednesday collecting evidence. Brown said the cause remains under investigation.

“We don’t have any suspect at time, but we are possibly talking to a person of interest,” Police Chief Delando Wilson said.

Witnesses were being interviewed and investigators were tracking down leads, he said.

“We will not rest until the culprit is found and fully prosecuted,” the mayor said.

The congregation has existed for 111 years, and will rebuild on the same site, said Caroline Hudson, the church’s pastor.

“The act that has happened has left our hearts broken but we are strong together,” Hudson said. “We are not angry, but our hearts are broken.”

Bishop Clarence Green called the fire troubling. He said that in his 21 years as bishop, the church had never been vandalized.

“The last time someone was at the church was Tuesday around 3”, Green said.

Asked where the church members will meet this Sunday, Green said: “We’ll have to work on that.”

____

Fuller reported from New Orleans.

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