By Zainab Chaudry
Tuesday night, the Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina became the eighth black church in America to burn to the ground within one week.
At least three of these incidents were ruled arson, while one was ruled accidental and others remain under investigation. Authorities are investigating if lightning caused Mount Zion AME to catch fire.
Prior to that, on June 17, nine churchgoers — including a prominent, black South Carolina State Senator — were fatally shot at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in what has been confirmed as a racially motivated attack.
This alarming spate of black church burnings has left many unanswered questions.
While some cases have been ruled accidental, others have been confirmed as arson. Who is behind these attacks? Why haven’t elected officials done a credible job of addressing these attacks or taken measures to protect black constituents who worship at these churches?
Where is coverage from mainstream media? Yes, several high-profile U.S. Supreme Court rulings garnered headlines over the last week, but these church burnings also warrant attention.
One prominent national news outlet delayed reporting on Tuesday night’s church burning for ten hours as pressure mounted on social media sites about the breaking news.
Where is the solidarity and moral and spiritual support from fellow non-black Christians? What would Jesus do?
Allies of diverse faiths seem invisible too. This absence during these conflicted, charged times is pronounced.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” We hear crickets in the silence from friends of black communities across America in the aftermath of these incidents.
America was founded by pilgrims fleeing religious persecution; many of those pilgrims are ancestors of the same people responsible for attacking some of these black churches and perpetuating religious intolerance.
And, while some of the eight fires appear to be accidental or due to natural causes, the number is still alarming.
For the black community, the church is not merely a place of worship and reflection; it plays an integral role in fostering a sense of belonging. Black churches are a place of refuge, celebration, healing, hope, rejoicing and comfort.
It is a place where artificially constructed walls of division collapse as congregants unite to advance in the religious and secular realms. So, in the cases where arsonists deliberately set fires, they didn’t simply target the foundation or structure of these churches.
Their actions are a direct, unmistakable attack on the sanctuary and refuge these churches offer.
They are a deliberate move to fan the flames of bigotry meant to perpetuate intolerance in America.
They are attempts to terrorize and instill fear and apprehension into the hearts of historically marginalized communities — both those who have been directly impacted by the burnings, and those who fear they may be targeted next.
Equally importantly, these domestic attacks pose an even greater threat to the American way of life than foreign entities.
Their impact must not be diminished or taken lightly.
Religious freedom is one of the core values that sets America apart from so many other countries in the world. It is a cherished ideal deprived to countless millions who are persecuted daily around the globe because of their beliefs.
As images of gutted churches recall church bombings in the South in the 1960’s, we cannot remain idle knowing that racial and religious intolerance is rising in our own country. We should be equally outraged regardless of whether the house of worship targeted in any attack is a church, mosque, temple or synagogue.
Any sanctuary where God’s name is evoked in prayer must be protected from harm. We must recognize that we all play a role in helping to protect these sanctuaries.
Dr. King said: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
As Americans of diverse religious faiths or no religious faith, our values and shared humanity dictate that we stamp out hatred and seek protection for black Christian communities so that they may worship in peace free from fear and apprehension.
Zainab Chaudry is the Maryland Outreach Manager for CAIR, Council on American Islamic Relations, contributor to Altmuslim and soon to be a blogger on Patheos Muslim.