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BY Jim Cosgrove
PRESIDENT CLINTON hosted a White House prayer breakfast June 26 for religious leaders and promised federal help to prevent arson at their churches.
Clinton told the leaders of various denominations that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will make available to churches arson prevention workshops and other resources to help them stem the recent rash of fires aimed mostly at predominantly black churches.
The president, before departing on a previously scheduled trip to France for the G-7 summit, also met at the White House with a group of leaders of major national fire and emergency services organizations.
The prayer breakfast involved nearly 50 religious leaders from denominations that included Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Unitarian, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mormon, Quaker, Evangelical, and Greek Orthodox.
“This was an idea that several religious leaders in the African American community had suggested to him as part of the healing process dealing with the church fires,” White House press secretary Mike McCurry said.
The White House described the meeting as a follow-up to the president's visit this month to the remains of a burned church in South Carolina, and to his meeting at the White House with a group of Southern governors.
As part of FEMA's response outlined to the church leaders, the agency has provided $773,000 to the affected states for arson training programs; will distribute radio and television advertisements describing arson prevention tips; and has established a toll-free number, 1-888-603-3100, as a central clearinghouse for information on arson prevention.
Meanwhile, the Senate unanimously passed a bill to double federal penalties for church arson.
“The wave of arsons primarily directed at African American churches is a reminder of some of the darkest moments in our history, when African Americans were mired in a quicksand of racial injustice,” Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said before the 98-0 vote.
“Burning of religious facilities throughout our country is truly a despicable act,” added Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican.
The Senate bill, similar to one that passed the House last week 422-0, gives the federal government greater jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute arson at religious buildings. It also increases the jail term for church arson from 10 to 20 years and provides federal loan guarantees to help rebuild burned churches.
On June 28, the House accepted the Senate version in a voice vote. Clinton is certain to sign the measure into law. (UPI)