Arson Fire Damages Church in Jerusalem

Jerusalem, Israel - Arsonists forced their way into a church used by Messianic Jews and three other congregations and set it on fire, causing moderate damage, church officials said Wednesday.

There was no claim of responsibility, but the church was burned down in 1982 by an ultranationalist Jewish group and later rebuilt, said a pastor, 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 the motive for the attack in the wealthy Jewish neighborhood of Rehavia in central Jerusalem was not immediately clear.

The arsonists broke into the building late Tuesday, setting it afire in three places. The floor was severely charred, windows were broken and several chairs burned.

No holy books were damaged, said Joseph Broom, the church's business services manager and a native of Charleston, S.C. Ben-Ruby had earlier said Bibles were damaged.

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

"We've had a lot of support from our immediate neighbors," Kopp said, 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. One of the congregations is made up of Messianic Jews, who consider themselves Jewish but believe in Jesus. Another is Baptist.

In response to the attack, the Israeli office of the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors hate crimes, 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 Jerusalem municipality sent a representative to the church Wednesday.

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

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents have been moving into the leafy neighborhood in recent years and are trying to impose their way of life on the area.

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