The national alarm over church burnings, prompted by dozens of fires set at churches in the South and Midwest in the mid-1990s, subsided several years ago after Congress gave federal authorities greater power to investigate and prosecute church arsons.
But although the number of incidents has dropped, arson directed at places of worship continues at a disturbing rate, according to those who have closely monitored the attacks.
"The numbers have come down some but not too much," said Rose Johnson-Mackey, research director for the National Coalition for Burned Churches and Community Empowerment, a watchdog group based in Charleston, S.C. "We want the nation to see how broad and deep the scope of the problem is."
According to the most recent report of the National Church Arson Task Force, which was formed in 1996 by presidential directive, the number of arson, bombing and attempted bombing investigations at houses of worship decreased from 297 in 1996 to 140 in 1999.
That monthly drop from 25 to 12 was due, in part, "to increased vigilance, well-publicized arrests and prosecutions and enhanced prevention strategies," said the report, released in September 2000.
In the last two years, the number of incidents has averaged about 10 a month, said Harold Scott Jr., special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which shares task force oversight with the Treasury Department.
The coalition, which in July published its own national registry of attacks against houses of worship, believes that the incidents are occurring at a much higher rate of 40 to 80 a month. Those figures are based on both the government task force numbers and reports solicited annually from state fire marshals' offices, Johnson-Mackey said.
Unlike the task force numbers, the coalition's figures include fires of undetermined cause, she said. And they include attacks ranging from total destruction of a building to a molotov cocktail thrown into an empty parking lot.
But the coalition said even its registry of incidents, which covered the period from 1999 through 2001, is incomplete because of underreporting by local fire departments. "The information . . . is based only on available data reflecting less than 20 percent of all church burning and bombing activity nationwide," the report said.
The registry lists arsons and bombings at 21 synagogues and nine mosques. Most of the targets of attack were churches.
Why people set houses of worship afire varies widely, investigators say. Sometimes it's simply a matter of a dark, empty building -- especially in rural areas -- providing an easy target for vandals, particularly teenagers. Burglars often set fires to cover up their activities, or homeless people start small fires for warmth.
Capt. Robert Stewart, chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, which has confirmed 80 arsons in the state since 1991, and 30 since 1999, said a volunteer fireman torched one church "so he'd have a fire to go to."
Race initially was believed to be the primary motivation for the attacks in the 1990s because so many burned churches were African American. The national task force determined that about 40 percent of church arsons from 1995 to 1999 involved African American congregations.
One of those churches, Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, S.C., was torched in 1995 by two men who later admitted to being members of the Ku Klux Klan. The pastor was the Rev. Terrance G. Mackey, Rose Johnson-Mackey's husband, who is now president of the National Coalition for Burned Churches.
A year later, after visiting Mount Zion's charred remains and its new sanctuary nearby, President Bill Clinton called for the church arson task force and Congress passed legislation establishing stronger penalties for incidents that could be considered hate crimes.
The most prolific arsonist of the 1990s, Jay Scott Ballinger of Indiana, said he was a worshiper of Lucifer, who destroyed churches because they had more money to promote their religion than Satanists did, said John W. Oxendine, insurance and safety fire commissioner of Georgia.
Ballinger received a life sentence for felony murder because a volunteer fireman died fighting one of five fires Ballinger set at white churches in Georgia in 1998 and 1999, Oxendine said.
Personal grudges also come into play. Two years ago, a man who burned down the 28-year-old First Baptist Church of Kingstowne in Fairfax County explained that he thought his estranged wife was having an affair with the church's pastor. The man pleaded no contest and received a five-year sentence with three years suspended.
The pastor, the Rev. Clyde Duncan, denied having an affair with anyone.
Recovering from a fire can take months or even years. In an interview this week, Duncan said the 140-person congregation had just approved a new educational wing when the fire occurred. For two years, members have been forced to worship in a temporary modular building and have been "disheartened" by the lengthy process of drawing up plans and getting county approval to rebuild, he said.
They received a site plan permit two weeks ago and await the construction design. The new sanctuary and educational space will cost $1.25 million, half of which is covered by insurance, Duncan said.
The Washington area has been relatively free of serious religion-directed arson. The coalition's registry lists 13 incidents throughout Maryland from 1999 through 2001, but many of those were minor cases.
Brian Geraci, assistant fire marshal for Montgomery County, knows of no serious church or synagogue arsons in recent years. However, investigators are still looking for suspects in a 1993 fire that damaged Pleasant Grove Community Church in Damascus, the oldest African American church in the county.
The registry lists three arsons for Virginia: Kingstowne Baptist, Franconia Baptist Church and Congregation Or Atid in Richmond.
One incident is noted in the District, a 1999 bombing attempt at a mosque.
In May, someone stuffed paper between two wooden entrance doors of Metropolitan AME Church in Northwest Washington and lit it. The fire caused $5,000 in damage.
These fires turned up in a database search for recent news articles about church arson, showing how often the crime occurs nationwide:
* On Nov. 1, a historic church that was to be the centerpiece of a restored religious settlement in Naperville, Ill., burned to the ground. Investigators suspect arson but have made no arrests.
* On Oct. 29, a fire destroyed the 61-year-old sanctuary of West Finley Baptist Church in Fordland, Mo. The evidence suggests arson.
* On Oct. 8, police arrested a man for trying to set fire to a church being built near Orangetown, N.Y.
* That day, in Fremont, Calif., arsonists started the first of three small fires set over a week at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.
Most disturbing, the coalition's Johnson-Mackey said, is that there were two church fires in September in Williamsburg County, S.C. -- near her husband's former church in Greeleyville -- and a fire last month near Selma, Ala., also a scene of church destruction in the mid-1990s.
"The reality is that incidents have continued to occur over the years in the same geographic area," Johnson-Mackey said. She said the coalition will press law enforcement and fire officials to continue to pursue aggressively all church arson cases.