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America's churches are burning.

The president, top Justice Department officials and hundreds of investigators want to know why - and by whom - and stop it.Arsonists have set fire to at least 123 houses of worship across the United States in the last five years, according to the files of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

What authorities most want to discover - and stamp out before it gets out of hand - is any pattern of racial and religious crimes like those that plagued the nation through the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Neither the FBI nor the ATF will discuss details of current cases of church arson. Some 28 suspicious church fires, largely in the South, remain under intense scrutiny.

However, a look at cases closed over the years shows no certain common cause for all or even most of the church arsons that have occurred nationwide. Virtually every denomination has suffered. No one region has escaped arson directed at churches, which have been damaged or destroyed in 27 states since October 1991.

According to the records, a disproportionately high number of the fires - 38 - have been at black churches. Racism is suspected in many of these incidents, and a federal task force is working with local investigators to find out if any particular groups are to blame.

President Clinton took note of the situation two months ago during the swearing-in ceremony of Kweisi Mfume as president of the NAACP.

"We must never go back," said Clinton, "to the days of black church bombings, the other terrible acts of racial terrorism." And he pledged, "We have to do everything we can to see that we determine ... who created these recent crimes and all of us stand together against any kind of return to that."

Assistant Attorney General Duval Patrick, head of the Civil Rights Division, says, "We've launched an extensive investigation involving hundreds of agents on the federal and local level. It's been a top priority for several months. But we'll only be satisfied when every case is solved."

Often, when man-made fires in holy places are probed, it's nothing to make a federal case out of. The culprit may be a teenage vandal acting alone, or a lunatic, associated with none but the voices in his head.

It is a sad truth that churches go down in fires so often because they go up in flames so well. It's also a fact that many churches are isolated, serving dispersed rural communities, and so make tempting targets.

"Churches burn very quickly," observes retired ATF official Robert Creighton. "They are filled with wood that's highly polished with old furniture wax. The pews and the books and tapestries are all very flammable. Often they have no sprinkler systems, which is too bad because often they are historical and the most valuable structures in a town."

Creighton was a special agent in charge for the ATF in Florida when 26 churches there were set afire over an 18-month period beginning in 1991. An arson task force was facing a new fire every couple of days and ultimately had to set up two command posts to handle the 125 investigators assigned to the case.

The hardest aspect for ATF agents and local police, he recalls, was, "The sadness. We'd roll on a church fire at 2 a.m. and there would be all the parishoners crying their eyes out seeing their church burn."

Congregations throughout Florida became so fearful that some kept all-night vigils, often armed, to ward off arsonists. The U.S. attorney in the state's northern district, Kenneth Sukhia, voiced despair of continuing attacks that "threatened the exercise of one of our most precious rights: the freedom to worship in safety and without fear."

The break finally came when there were two fires in one day, one in St. Augustine and one south of the city. An ATF agent on the way to the first fire saw a hitchhiker and later on his way to the second fire noticed him again. This person fit the suspect profile built up by ATF agents working out of the FBI's behavioral science center.

Patrick Lee Frank, 42, of Chattanooga was charged in all 26 of the Florida church fires, plus four in Chattanooga, one in Denver and one in Savanna that killed a firefighter when a hose flipped up and crushed his chest.

For reasons of economy he was tried only for 16 arson fires in Florida, convicted on all and sentenced to a federal mental institution until he is "restored to mental health." Creighton says he is confident that Frank will never be freed. "No one thought federal prison was the place for him. He felt God was telling him to do this."

Whenever there is a rash of church arson in one area, investigators come under enormous community pressures to make a quick collar. When the arsonist is a deranged person, he can be harder to apprehend than a professional torch.

"A pro will leave tell-tales," explains Creighton. "You can set up surveillance for his car. There can be a paper trail as he travels about.

"That doesn't work well for someone like Frank. He slept in the woods. He didn't drive. You can't believe how mobile someone can be just by traveling on foot, riding only buses. Frank prowled the streets mainly at night, a true nocturnal animal. He was catlike, sliding into and out of vacant buildings. It's amazing how difficult it was to follow him."

What puzzled the arson team in the Frank case was the absence of pattern. No black churches burned, no synagogues, only one Catholic church. Investigators ruled out racism or anti-abortion as motives. Frank, it would turn out, had been raised a Baptist, and the Protestant churches he set afire were - as the ATF task force leader Chuck Hudson had reluctantly concluded - merely targets of opportunity.

The track was easier to follow when three men left two churches aflame in Maury County, Tenn., last year. According to the district attorney general, Thomas Bottoms, they also left burning crosses and set fire to a tavern owned by a black man with whom they had a locally celebrated feud.

In fact, it came out at trial that Robert Lee Johnson, 33, and Michael Jett, 41, and his cousin Marc Anthony Jett, 31, first burned the tavern and set fire to the churches later the same night only to deflect suspicion from themselves. Bottoms said they pleaded guilty to civil rights intimidation in federal court and to arson in state court, receiving eight-year sentences.

The three church burners were not proven members of any hate group. As the attorney general puts it, "They were just very drunk."

The burning of churches is an old if dishonorable American tradition, distinguished only by degree from the wilful burning of barns and forests and crosses. There are no records kept that would give a full count of church arson through U.S. history. Experts can only guess at many thousands.

Even as federal, state and local officers keep a lookout, the fires continue.

On the evening of April 13, in Barnwell County, S.C., fires broke out at three churches. The sanctuary of Rosemary Baptist Church, which has a black congregation, was heavily damaged. The doors to Mt. Olivet Church and the pump house at Allan's Chapel, both with white congregations, were burned down.

"It's got the people all upset," says Drew Wilder, owner of the Barnwell radio station, WBAW. "There's a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest."

Wilder says it doesn't appear to the community to be an act of racial hate since two of the churches are white. He says it doesn't seem sectarian, since all three churches are Baptist.

"That's all we have down here, Baptists."

He says he has some inside information that the FBI and the ATF have a suspect, a member of one of the churches with a grudge against the pastor.

As Wilder wryly puts it, "A good Christian, he is."