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Fighting Crime Against Churches

US sees progress in solving - and preventing - bombings and arson directed at America's religious havens.

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After arson ravaged the Methodist church in Lakeland, Fla., parishioners, neighbors, and the community at large were at a loss to explain why anyone would target a house of God.

But the state fire marshall quickly assembled a team of investigators - who talked with convenience-store clerks, residents, anyone who might have seen anything suspicious on that February day - and came up with a motive. He soon arrested two men who had set the fire to hide their theft of church property.

Over the years, attacks on houses of worship, such as arson or bombings like the one last Sunday at a church in Danville, Ill., have been motivated by greed, jealousy, racial hatred, and a warped sense of amusement. But as the Florida case shows, renewed efforts by law-enforcement officers to solve such crimes are paying off.

Next month, the US government will report a significant drop in the number of church arsons last year compared with 1996, when church burnings hit their peak.

"We're starting to make some progress," says Tom Perez, deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights and a member of the National Church Arson Task Force, established by President Clinton in 1996.

Tougher new laws and the commitment of resources are speeding the progress, experts say. For one, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has made church bombings a top priority. And, with the help of the FBI, state and local investigators are now cracking 35 percent of church arson cases, compared with 16 percent of all other suspicious fires.

Of the Florida case, Maj. Steve Spradley, a law-enforcement official in Tallahassee, says: "It just took getting out and doing a lot of interviews."

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