(photo credit:Ariel Jerozolimski )
A Jerusalem church was set on fire late Tuesday night, causing moderate damage to the main sanctuary, police and church officials said Wednesday.
There were no injuries reported in the late-night blaze at the Baptist Church on Rehov Narkiss, but the interior of the downtown church was moderately damaged by the fire, Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said.
The arsonists fled the scene and remained at large on Wednesday. The motive of the rare arson attack was not immediately clear, the police said.
The church was burned down by a fringe group of Jewish extremists a quarter century ago, said Chuck Kopp, a pastor at the church and a native of Los Angeles.
The arsonists broke into the church building, located in the upscale Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, just before 11 p.m. on Tuesday night, setting it afire in three different places with flammable materials, police and church officials said.
Jewish neighbors summoned firefighters who swiftly put out the blaze before it could spread, saving the sanctuary, said Joseph A. Broom, the church's business services manager and a native of Charleston, South Carolina.
He noted that about 30-40 chairs were burned, but no prayer
books were destroyed in the blaze.
The floor of the sanctuary was severely charred, windows were broken, and the site smelled of smoke and tinder on Wednesday.
The sanctuary had opened in 1993 after the older wooden chapel was burnt down in 1982.
The church is used by four separate congregations, including two for Messianic Jews, with services offered in English, Hebrew, and Russian.
Some of the Russian speakers attending the services for Messianic Jews had been previously threatened, church officials said. Messianic Jews consider themselves Jewish but believe in Jesus. In the past, Israeli anti-missionary activists have called the church a hotbed of missionary activity.
Several hundred people attend the four Sunday services offered by the church, Broom said.
The New York-based Anti-Defamation League on Wednesday quickly condemned the torching of the central Jerusalem church.
"The Anti-Defamation League strongly condemned this arson and apparent hate crime," a statement issued by their Israel office read. "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 pastor, who has been living in Israel for the last four decades, noted that the arson attack took place on the Hebrew anniversary of the assassination of the late prime minster Yitzhak Rabin 12 years ago.
"Every society has its fanatics and there is no lack of fanatics here in the Middle East," he said, adding that he was not surprised by the attack. "We've been needing a face-lift anyway," he concluded.
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