Jewish extremists under suspicion of church arson

Arsonists burst into a church in a wealthy Jerusalem neighborhood and set the building on fire.

No one claimed responsibility for the late-night attack, but the same church was burned down 25 years ago by ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremists and later rebuilt. Among the four denominations who use the church are highly controversial messianic Jews, who consider themselves Jewish but believe in Jesus.

The arsonists broke into the building late Tuesday, setting it afire in three different places. The floor was severely charred and many chairs were burned. No one was the building at the time.

No holy books were damaged in the fire and there was no structural damage to the building, said Joseph Broom, the church's business services manager and a native of Charleston, South Carolina.

"We all still need to learn the lessons of tolerance and to accept the different among us," said Charles Kopp, an American who is the pastor of the church. "We don't suspect anyone specific, but they were extremists for sure."

Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said no arrests had been made and the motive for the attack was not immediately clear.

Kopp, a Los Angeles native who has been at the church since 1966, said the facility has long had good relations with its neighbors in Rehavia - a leafy neighborhood in central Jerusalem with a mixed population of secular and Orthodox Jews.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents of a nearby area have in recent years begun moving into Rehavia and trying to impose their strict way of life on parts of the neighborhood. Still, relations between religions are generally good in largely Jewish west Jerusalem, and violence is rare.

Kopp said neighbors called the fire department and their quick response saved the structure. "We were spared a bigger tragedy, for sure," he said.

"We've had a lot of support from our immediate neighbors," Kopp added, noting that the rabbi of a neighboring Reform congregation offered the use of her synagogue for services.

Congregants at the church include foreign workers, students and Sudanese refugees who recently entered the country from Egypt, Kopp said. The church has been broken into several times over the past five years, but such incidents were generally attempts at thievery, Kopp said.

He did not accuse anyone of carrying out the attack, but noted that Jewish extremists were a possible culprit. "There are extremists in every society, every culture," he said.

Worshippers at the church include two congregations of messianic Jews, who are also known as "Jews for Jesus." While Israel has close ties with mainstream evangelical groups, many Israelis frown upon messianic Jewish customs of maintaining Jewish rituals while also accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

Shmuel Sandler, a professor at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv and an expert on religion and politics, said Israel's tiny community of messianic Jews tends to keep a low profile because past hostility aimed at the group.

"They themselves in Israel are very careful not to trigger anything," he said.

Rabbi David Rosen, the Jerusalem-based interfaith director for the American Jewish Committee, said it was likely that Orthodox extremists were behind Tuesday's attack.

"It's very rash to jump to conclusions. But I can't think of a more likely candidate," he said, recalling the 1982 attack on the same building was carried out by Orthodox zealots.

"Especially within Orthodox circles, there are people who don't know the modern world, don't know modern Christianity, and see the more evangelical forms of Christianity as a threat. They behave very badly toward them," he said. "This is anti-Jewish behavior, which is coming out of these people's misplaced hatred."

The attack drew a condemnation from the Israeli office of the Anti-Defamation League, a U.S. group that monitors hate crimes, and calls for tolerance from Jerusalem city officials.

"I was so sad when I heard the news," said Jose Alalu, a city official who rushed to the scene of the blaze. "I think that we can stop these things, that we need to stop these things, not just for the church, but for ourselves."

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Author`s name Angela Antonova