GREENVILLE, Miss. (CN) — The FBI says it's too early to determine whether the arson and vandalism of a black church in Mississippi, which included the message "Vote Trump," should be investigated as a hate crime.
The 111-year-old Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., was set on fire Tuesday night. The words "Vote Trump" were spray-painted in large white letters across the side of the one-story building, according to reports.
The blaze, which took about an hour to fully extinguish, destroyed 80 percent of the church, primarily in the sanctuary.
The FBI has opened a civil-rights investigation of the incident, but the bureau said it is too early to say whether the arson should be considered a hate crime, according to the Associated Press.
Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons, however, called the attack a "hateful and cowardly act" during a press conference with local authorities Wednesday morning. He said the incident was a "direct assault" on citizens' right to freely worship.
"We consider it a hate crime," Simmons said. "Because of the political message which we believe was intended to interfere with worship and intimidate voters."
The Mississippi NAACP said in a statement that the Hopewell church served as a meeting place for organizers during the civil-rights movement, and that the burning and vandalism "sparks up all too familiar images...riddled with hatred and intolerance."
"It is important to remember this same violent action was taken to intimidate and impede African Americans from voting in the 50's and 60's," the group said. "We support a full investigation into this matter to determine if it was, in fact, a hate crime."
Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann told WDAM-TV that people should be "careful about jumping to conclusions" about the incident, which he said may not be political.
"I want to make it clear that the initial work here indicates this is not of a political nature, even though there may be something that says 'vote Trump' on the side of the church," Hosemann said. "So everybody needs to calm down here until we get to the bottom of this."
Greenville Police Chief Delando Wilson told the New York Times on Wednesday that investigators were "keeping all possible motives on the table."
The state fire marshal and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are also helping with the investigation.
At the press conference Wednesday, Wilson said there was no suspect in the case, although they were speaking to a "person of interest."
The police chief said that the incident was being investigated as a hate crime, but the Times reported he couldn't say whether the attack was "a racial issue."
About 78 percent of Greenville's population of roughly 30,000 people are black, according to the AP.
Simmons told Mississippi Public Broadcasting that authorities have increased security around local churches, and he encouraged the public not to be intimidated away from voting.
Hopewell pastor Carolyn Hudson, who also spoke at the press conference, said the church has never made any political statements and has never been vandalized before.
"The act that has happened have [sic] left our hearts broken, but we are strong together, and we do believe that God would allow us to build another sanctuary in that same place," Hudson said Wednesday.
A Go Fund Me page set up Wednesday seeking to raise $10,000 to repair the church had collected over $180,000 by Thursday afternoon.
The office of U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, whose district includes Greenville, had not yet provided Courthouse News with a statement by press time.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.