Future Scientology Center in Jaffa Burns, Police Suspect Arson

Arab and Jewish residents of Jaffa have mounted protests in the hope of denying the Scientologists a foothold in the city.

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

The Jaffa building that is slated to become the national headquarters of the Church of Scientology was set on fire yesterday, and police said they suspect arson.

Smoke pouring from the windows of the burning building in Jaffa yesterday.Credit: Moti Milrod

The building is unoccupied, but nine construction workers renovating the site were initially trapped by the flames on the main staircase. They were rescued by firefighters, and none sustained significant injuries.

"We suddenly noticed smoke and it was difficult for us to breathe," said one of the construction workers. "My friend could no longer stay in the building and he jumped from the third-story window and into a garbage bin."

Initially, fire officials attributed the blaze to an electrical short circuit, but once the identity of the owners became clear, investigators began to suspect arson.

Arab and Jewish residents of Jaffa have mounted protests in the hope of denying the Scientologists a foothold in the city and launched a petition on Facebook calling on the authorities to keep the organization away.

"We still do not know for certain whether this was a case of arson," said Seffi Fischler, a spokesperson for the Church of Scientology's Israel branch. "From our standpoint, the most important thing right now is that none of the workers who were at the scene were hurt. We support respect for all religions. It's important for me to get that message across objectively and responsibly."

Fischler said this was the first time a Scientology building has been set on fire in Israel.

In 2007, buyers affiliated with the Church of Scientology acquired the building on Jaffa's Hashikma Street, which once housed the Alhambra Theater.

The followers want the site to become the largest Scientology center in the Middle East.

Several Israeli Scientologists said they are relocating to Jaffa in order to contribute to the battle against drugs and to help heal various social ills.

Despite the declared goodwill, their neighbors say they are not ready to accept them as part of the community.

In the 1980s, the state officially declared Scientology a cult and ordered public schools not to teach it.

Members of the church who arrived at the scene of the blaze said they would not postpone the opening of the center due to the fire.

Dozens of Scientology followers came to the building to assist in the cleanup operation. Followers of Scientology have sought to gain wider recognition for years.

It has gained attention in the United States thanks to a number of high-profile converts, including Hollywood stars Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, John Travolta, Nicole Kidman and others.

"We are often portrayed in a distorted way by the media," said Fischler. "Scientology is recognized as a religion in 27 countries. In Israel we have yet to begin this process so that we can receive formal recognition as a religion."

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