Vandals target Protestant churches in Kansai

Osaka, Japan - Investigators are perplexed and the Christian clergy has been shaken by a rash of vandalism acts against Protestant churches in the Kansai region over the past year.

More than 50 incidents have been reported at churches and other religious facilities belonging to Protestant groups in Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto and Shiga prefectures since September 2008.

The attacks share common traits in that they all occurred at night and that in many cases fire extinguishers were used to smash windows.

Police say they have yet to find any leads on the perpetrator.

The 61-year-old pastor of a church in eastern Hyogo Prefecture which was targeted in mid-October said he has been unable to sleep properly since the attack.

"Ever since that day, I get the jitters at hearing the slightest sound," he said.

The pastor said he was alerted by a neighbor on the morning of Oct. 16 that a window to a bible study room in the same building as the chapel was broken. When he went to investigate, he found a fire extinguisher, which had spewed out its contents, on the floor.

The incident occurred on a Friday, two days before the pastor was to deliver his Sunday sermon.

Investigators later traced the extinguisher to one that was stolen from a nearby condominium. A safety lock pin presumably from the same extinguisher was found discarded on the street outside the church.

"I sense the perpetrator had some perverted intention. If it was to obstruct the holding of services, then it is absolutely unforgivable," the pastor said.

According to church officials and others, 38 attacks had been reported in Osaka Prefecture; 12 in Hyogo Prefecture; and three each in Kyoto and Shiga prefectures as of late November.

The attacks were all against religious facilities belonging to Protestant groups. For the most part, fire extinguishers or bricks were lobbed at windows. Most of the attacks occurred late at night. One church even reported having been targeted three times in six months.

On the same night that the 61-year-old pastor's church was attacked, three similar incidents occurred in Kobe as well as one in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, just east of the port city, and one in Amagasaki further east in the same prefecture.

According to police, neighbors reported hearing a motorcycle speeding away from the scene in some cases.

Prefectural police officials said no one has claimed responsibility in any of the incidents.

While police have heightened their alert by conducting patrols or keeping watch at night, one senior police official admitted that "with the large number of churches, it is impossible to concentrate our attention on one area."

Out of concern for the safety of its members, the Kinki Fukuin Hoso Dendo Kyoryoku-kai (Kinki evangelical broadcasting church cooperation association), an umbrella group with about 500 member churches, has instructed members to take precautions.

According to the organization, some churches have installed reinforced glass panes in windows or set up sensors around facilities.

"In this day and age, it is unthinkable that (the incidents) were caused by strife within the Christian community," said Takahisa Yamaguchi, the 61-year-old head of the organization. "The church is not only open to the parish but to the community, so we really don't want to have to make security too strict."

So far, the attacks have been limited to the Protestant community. According to the Catholic Osaka Archdiocese which oversees about 80 churches, no attacks have been reported.

An official at the Tokyo-based Japan Confederation of Christian Churches said the organization has received no reports of vandalism from outside of the Kansai region.

Meanwhile an official for the Shinshu Otani-ha Buddhist sect said: "As a fellow person of religion, I am very disturbed by these incidents."

Masayuki Kiryu, a former chief researcher at the Yamagata prefectural police crime laboratory who teaches criminal psychology at Kansai University of International Studies, said it was unclear whether the attacks were carried out by a single perpetrator because they covered such a wide area.

"On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that a church or seminary could draw the wrath of so many people," Kiryu said, adding that he believes at this point, the motive behind the attacks is to draw attention through acts of violence.