Fire destroys church hall after Sydney riots

Sydney, Australia - A fire that destroyed a church hall in Sydney, and shots fired during a Christmas carol service, could be linked to violent clashes between whites and Arab-Australians, officials said.

Four men were seen near the Uniting Church hall, which is next to an Islamic centre in the multicultural suburb of Auburn, before the fire broke out in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

"I've been in contact with the police this morning and the police are treating it as suspicious," New South Wales state Premier Morris Iemma said.

Asked in a television interview if the blaze was related to the riots, Iemma said "it may be".

A team of about 30 firefighters took up to two hours to control the blaze, which followed two days of race riots in Sydney in which dozens of people were injured and arrested.

A Christmas carol service at a nearby Catholic primary school in Auburn on Monday evening was disrupted when shots were fired into parked cars and parents and children abused by men of Middle Eastern appearance.

No one was hurt in the incident, which was condemned by Sydney's Catholic Archbishop Cardinal George Pell as "apparently motivated by religious intolerance".

Pell appealed for calm and tolerance between Sydney's Christian and Islamic communities.

"This violence is unacceptable, as unacceptable as the violence perpetrated by Anglo elements on Sunday at Cronulla," Pell said, referring to attacks by white mobs on people of Middle Eastern appearance at Cronulla beach on Sunday.

"This is an appeal for cooperation, a request that we all work together," he said in a statement.

"All Australians, those of no religion, other religions, Christian or Muslim, have a right to be left alone to go about their business in peace, to enjoy the holiday season peacefully, to worship peacefully."

Sydney was mainly quiet on Tuesday night as hundreds of police descended on troubled suburbs to prevent a new outbreak of violence, arresting five people, mainly for carrying weapons.

New south Wales Police Minister Carl Scully said, however, that more unrest was expected and hundreds of police would be on duty at the weekend as text messages encouraging violence continued to circulate.