J'lem Church Officials Suspect Extremist Jews Behind Arson

Sanctuary used by four congregations, including Messianic Jews; last church fire in 1982 set by ultranationalists.

A church in central Jerusalem was set afire before dawn Wednesday and suffered extensive damage, police said.

Arsonists, suspected to be extremist Jews, forced their way into the church and set it afire, church officials said Wednesday.

The sanctuary used by four separate congregations, including Baptists, had been burned down in 1982 by an ultranationalist Jewish group and later rebuilt, said a pastor at the church, Charles Kopp.

"We all still need to learn the lessons of tolerance and to accept the different among us," said Kopp, an American who grew up in Los Angeles. "We don't suspect anyone specific but they were extremists for sure."

Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said no arrests had been made and it was not immediately clear what motive was behind the attack.

The arsonists broke into the building late Tuesday, setting it afire in three different places. The floor was severely charred, windows were broken and several chairs were burned. No holy books were damaged in the fire, said Joseph Broom, the church's business services manager and a native of Charleston, South Carolina. Ben-Ruby had earlier said bibles were damaged.

Jewish neighbors called the fire department and their quick response was what saved the structure, said Kopp, who has been at the church since 1966.

Congregants at the church include international workers, students and Sudanese refugees who recently entered the country from Egypt, Kopp said. One of the congregations is made up of Messianic Jews, who consider themselves Jewish but believe in Jesus.

In response to the attack, the Israeli office of the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors hate crimes, condemned the attack and called for tolerance.

"The ADL strongly condemned this arson and apparent hate crime," the New-York based organization said. "We urged authorities to do everything in their power to protect all religious sites and see that the perpetrators of the crime are brought to justice.

The church is located in the leafy, middle-class neighborhood of Rehavia. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents of a nearby area have in recent years begun moving into Rehavia and trying to impose their way of life on the neighborhood.

Relations between religions are generally good in largely Jewish west Jerusalem, and violent incidents are rare.

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