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Israel says Jerusalem church fire wasn't arson

Oct. 31, 2010 10:14 A.M. (Updated: Nov. 2, 2010 8:42 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- Israeli police said Saturday that a weekend fire at a Jerusalem church appeared to be accidental.

Luba As-Samri, an Israeli police spokeswoman, told Ma'an that the incident at Jerusalem's Alliance Church lightly injured 13 people. They were treated Thursday for smoke inhalation at local Israeli hospitals, she said.

An initial inquiry suggested the fire was accidental, As-Samri said. Investigations are ongoing, she said.

Witnesses from the nearby Bikur Holim Hospital agreed that the fire was the result of an accident, pointing to candles from the church as the likely culprit. Church officials say they remain unsure of the cause.

Israeli settlers were initially accused. Zakariyya Al-Mashriqi, a church leader, said there was evidence that a "group of extremist settlers broke a window in the back of the two-story building and hurled fire bombs inside," torching the first floor of what was until 1948 the Palestine Bible College.

Al-Mashriqi condemned the "arson," saying it was intended to create division among Jerusalem leaders and ultimately to expel Palestinians from the area through ongoing attacks on their property.

Hamas condemns 'disgraceful' arson

Hamas, meanwhile, has condemned what it called "the extremist Jewish settlers' assault" on the church. It held Israeli authorities fully responsible for the "disgraceful" act, an online statement said Saturday.

Hamas urged Israel to stop "such racist practices, and asked international organizations to assume their responsibilities and pressure the Israeli occupation authority to halt its incessant crimes against the Palestinian people and their Islamic and Christian holy shrines that violated all international laws, norms, and ethics."

Also, the Islamic Movement in Israel expressed "utter dismay" in a separate statement.

Zahi Nujaidat, a spokesman for the movement, said the movement denounced "in the strongest words the crime of burning the church, which falls in line with the series of assaults on holy shrines."

The building, constructed in 1897, was initially used as part of the campus for the college, which was shut down in 1948 when employees and church officials fled fighting and sought shelter in East Jerusalem. When Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, officials returned to the building, which was refurbished in 1967.

The building was located on Prophets Street, which runs through both East and West Jerusalem.
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