The historic Jerusalem Alliance Church on Prophets Street in downtown Jerusalem suffered a serious fire over the weekend, and while the cause of the blaze is still under investigation, Israel’s detractors have already made up their minds that it was set by Jews intent on running Christians out of town.
The Jerusalem Alliance Church, part of the global Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA), was built in 1914 on the edge of what is now the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim. The building is used by a number of local congregations, including some Messianic Jewish congregations, and also houses a number of C&MA volunteers and staff.
Ten church staff had to be evacuated as the fire began to spread in the basement area of the building just after midnight last Friday. At least three staff members were treated for smoke inhalation at the adjacent Bikur Cholim Hospital.
Considering that there were people sleeping in the building, the question of whether or not the fire was intentional became even more pressing.
Rev. Jack Sara, the pastor of the Alliance Church’s main Arabic-speaking congregation, told Israel Today that police had confirmed to him that the fire was an act of arson. He noted that had Muslims been behind the fire, they most likely would have claimed credit, thereby shifting suspicion to Orthodox Jewish extremists.
Orthodox attacks on perceived “missionary” elements in Israel are not uncommon, and in fact have escalated in recent years, though they usually target Messianic Jews. That doesn’t mean ultra-Orthodox attacks on Christian churches are unheard of. In 2007, suspected Orthodox extremists set fire to the Narkiss Street Baptist Church in downtown Jerusalem. The same church was burned to the ground by anti-missionary elements 25 years earlier.
Rev. Sara was reluctant to point a finger of blame at any particular group, though he said Jewish elements are the most likely culprits, and was concerned that current speculations were being exploited for political purposes.
He noted that the day after the fire, Muslim and other Arab press were the first to visit. Naturally, they painted the story as an Israeli assault on Christian freedom of worship in the Holy Land.
Zachariah Al-Mashriqi, described in news reports as the “Guardian for the Jerusalem Alliance Church,” did not share Rev. Sara’s more tempered reaction, and openly declared the fire as an attempt by certain Jews to drive Arab Christians from the city. It was that angle that Arab and Muslim leaders latched on to.
Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh termed the fire just the latest in a string of “repeated attacks by settlers against Muslim and Christian holy sites.” The Palestinian Authority views Jews living anywhere in the land as “settlers.” The Jerusalem Alliance Church is on the side of Jerusalem that was under Israeli control even before 1967.
Hamas issued a statement calling the fire just another step in Israel’s efforts to “judaize” Jerusalem, and demanded that the international community pressure Israel to “halt its crimes against the Palestinians and their Islamic and Christian holy shrines.”
Even Iran got in on the action. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters that his country “considers the recent provocative action of the Zionists in desecrating a historic church in the occupied [Jerusalem] another example of the Zionist Regime’s disrespect towards heavenly religions and religious sanctities.”
Meanwhile, Israeli police and a number of witnesses said it may be premature to blame Jews of any stripe for the blaze.
Police spokeswoman Luba As-Samri told the Bethlehem-based news agency Ma’an that the initial investigation into the fire suggests it was accidental. Witnesses from the adjacent Bikur Cholim hospital also said it was likely accidental, noting that candles were often left burning in various rooms of the church building.
Rev. Sara insisted there were no candles in the room where the fire started, and that renovations on the basement had been completed just a day before, which he said meant the fire could not be blamed on faulty wiring or other electrical problems.
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