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Man linked to white supremacist group pleads guilty to US church firebombing

A man allegedly connected to a white supremacist group has pleaded guilty to firebombing a church in Ohio to try to prevent it from hosting two drag shows planned for last April.

According to court documents, 20-year-old Aimenn Penny had made molotov cocktails before driving to the community church of Chesterland on 25 March this year. He threw two at the church, damaging the house of worship and a sign.

Authorities arrested Penny in March and charged him with two counts of arson and one of possessing an explosive device. He was also accused of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs – a federal hate crime.

On Tuesday, the US justice department issued a statement saying that Penny had pleaded guilty “to using force through fire and explosives” with the intent of obstructing congregants from their “enjoyment and expression of their religious beliefs”.

The FBI alleges Penny is a member of the White Lives Matter group that espouses racist and neo-Nazi views. Penny and members of the group had earlier been observed protesting a drag group and “carrying swastika flags and shouting racial and homophobic slurs and ‘Heil Hitler’”, the justice department’s statement said.

An FBI field office in Cleveland had later been tipped off that Penny was responsible for the attack. The agency used cellphone location data to determine that he had been in the area at the time of the fire bombing.

The complaint said that before the attack Penny had become “more and more angry after watching internet videos of news feeds and drag shows in France and decided to attack the church”.

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FBI agents said they found “a Nazi flag, Nazi memorabilia, a White Lives Matters of Ohio T-shirt, a gas mask, multiple rolls of blue painter’s paint and gas cans” at his home.

“Attempting to burn down the community church of Chesterland for their support of the LGBTQI+ community is reprehensible,” said assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke, of the justice department’s civil rights division, in a statement on Tuesday.

The justice department, Clarke added, “will continue to protect all Americans in their free exercise of religious beliefs by vigorously prosecuting those who target houses of worship”.

Matthew Olsen of the department’s national security division said Penny had admitted to attempting to burn down the church because he did not like the way congregants chose to express their beliefs.

“Such acts of extremist violence are antithetical to core American values of freedom of expression and worship and we will not tolerate those who would use force to deny our citizens the free exercise of their rights,” Olsen said.

Penny’s sentencing was tentatively scheduled for 29 January.