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Fire at Mt. Zion AME Church was natural, South Carolina officials say

The blaze that destroyed an historic black church in South Carolina this week left "no indicator of criminal intent" and may have been the result of a lightning strike, law enforcement officials said Thursday.

The fire that tore through Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, S.C., on Tuesday night was the latest of six blazes at Southern black churches in the last 10 days.

The wave of fires -- coupled with a white man's fatal shooting of nine African Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church last month and the ensuing debate over the prominence and meaning of the Confederate battle flag -- raised the question of whether the blazes were arson fires and evoked white supremacist terrorism from decades earlier.

The blaze at Mt. Zion AME Church was particularly evocative: Almost exactly 20 years earlier, two men linked to the Ku Klux Klan burned down the church's previous building.

The cause of Tuesday's fire at Mt. Zion, however, was "best classified as natural," the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said Thursday in a statement.

A lightning strike was reported in the area on the night of the fire, according to the agency. Local news media also reported lightning that night.

The agency said its findings were backed up by debris analysis and witness statements.

Two of the six recent fires at historically black Southern churches have been confirmed to be the result of arson. None have been declared hate crimes.

On Thursday, federal officials said two of the recent fires were started by natural causes. They referred to a third blaze as an electrical fire.

This week, local officials told the Los Angeles Times that the only recent fires determined to be arson were those that took place at College Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., on June 21 and at Briar Creek Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., on June 24.

In a statement this week, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also said its investigators had "no reason to believe these fires are racially motivated or related" to one another.

Times staff writer Matt Pearce contributed to this report.

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