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Cause of Fire at Mount Zion AME Church Ruled 'Natural'

The fire in Greeleyville, South Carolina, raised suspicions that it may have been arson, coming after a racially motivated attack in Charleston.

Investigators in South Carolina said Thursday that a fire at a historic black church this week was most likely sparked by natural causes and that no criminal intent was found.

The State Law Enforcement Division, or SLED, said the investigation into the blaze that gutted Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church on Tuesday was conducted with help of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as local officials.

"Based upon the scene examination, the fire debris analysis, witness statements and a lightning strike report, the cause of the fire was best classified as natural," SLED said in a statement, adding that the investigation is closed.

Tuesday's fire occurred in an atmosphere of heightened tensions in South Carolina after a white gunman opened fire at another historic black church, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and killed nine people in what authorities have called a racially motivated attack.

The FBI, the ATF and the Department of Justice are investigating a series of fires at predominantly black churches across five Southern states that occurred over the last two weeks, Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman said Thursday.

"To date the investigations have not revealed any potential links between the fires," Newman said.

At least seven black churches have burned in the South since the massacre at Emanuel AME, authorities have said. Newman said three fires that have been investigated were determined to have been caused by natural or electrical causes.

"If in fact there is evidence to support hate crime charges in any one of these cases, the FBI, in coordination with the ATF and local authorities, will work closely with the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorneys' Offices to bring those forward," Newman said.

Mount Zion has been the target of racial hatred in the past. The church, founded more than 110 years ago, was burned to the ground on June 20, 1995, by two members of the Ku Klux Klan.