Community members take part in a protest to demand stop hate crime during the funeral service of Imam Maulama Akonjee, and...

Justice Department committed to prosecuting religious hate crimes, official says

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions is committed to prosecuting those who commit religious hate crimes, a Justice Department official said Tuesday as Democratic senators questioned whether the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies have contributed to a spike in such offenses.

Eric Treene, the department’s special counsel for religious discrimination, offered no theories for what has caused a recent rise in religious hate crimes, but said Sessions has urged the nation’s federal prosecutors to pursue those cases as part of his tough-on-crime agenda. Treene’s comments came during a Senate Judiciary Hearing to address a rise in hate crimes.

“It’s no accident that there is a rise in hate crimes, because we’re in an environment where the president targets Muslims with his language,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, referring to Trump’s travel ban prohibiting new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries and his tough talk on immigration. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. asked whether appointing people like Steve Bannon, who led a far-right media organization that promoted anti-immigrant views, has emboldened those who want to commit hateful attacks.

“The attorney general has been consistent and strong in his message that hate crime is violent crime, and we need to do everything we can with all the tools in our prosecutorial tool box to fight this problem,” Treene said.

Sessions has ordered an internal committee to study the issue of hate crimes, including how law enforcement agencies can better investigate and document them. Treene pointed to federal data showing a 23 percent rise in religion-based hate crimes between 2014 and 2015 — namely against Muslims and Jews, Treene said. But FBI statistics unquestionably undercount, he said, because they use data provided by police agencies around the country that do so voluntarily.

The lack of solid data stymies officials’ ability to fully understand the problem but won’t stop the Justice Department from devoting resources to it, he said.

The hearing came after this year’s wave of more than 150 bomb threats against Jewish community centers and day schools. Authorities arrested an Israeli Jewish hacker who they said was behind the harassment.

Treene said that investigation and several others are ongoing.

WATCH: What can the Trump administration do to quell anti-Semitism?