Church Building in Israel Set Ablaze

Unidentified arsonist guts bottom floors of Jerusalem ministry center.

ISTANBUL, November 4 (CDN) — An unidentified arsonist in Israel set fire to a Jerusalem church building that has long been a focal point for anti-Christian sentiment in a Jewish ultra-Orthodox-leaning neighborhood, church officials said.

On Friday (Oct. 29) shortly before 1 a.m., someone broke the basement windows of the Jerusalem Alliance Church Ministry Center and set fire to its bottom floors. An area resident noticed the fire and called the fire department, which arrived 20 minutes later and found the church basement engulfed in flames.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze, ventilated the smoke and left after inspecting the rest of the building, said Jack Sara, senior pastor of the church.

Smoke and the noise of the blaze had awakened 10 volunteer workers who were sleeping at the church’s overnight facilities. The volunteers, who were visiting Israel from the United States and Denmark, went to a nearby hospital and were treated for smoke inhalation; they were released several hours later, church leaders said.

The church building sustained approximately $85,000 of smoke and fire damage. The fire largely gutted the basement and destroyed recent renovations.

Sara said he had difficulty understanding how the arsonist could have carried so much hate; whoever set the fire had to know people were inside the church, he said.

“He not only intended to burn a room but to kill people,” Sara said. “Whoever did it intended to kill people.”

According to Sara, fire investigators initially said the fire was accidental. Then they shifted and said the fire was arson, only to change back again to their original claim that it was accidental.

Although the Israeli press reported that investigators had not formally announced their findings, Sara said investigators told him the fire was “very suspicious.” Contrary to some reports, he insisted that there were no candles lit in the basement when the fire broke out.

Sara said his church, which hosts several congregational groups including expatriates and both Arab Christians and Messianic Jews, routinely receives threats. Referring to Orthodox Jews, militant Palestinians and even some Orthodox Christian communities, Sara said he receives hatred “from all sides.”

It is not unheard of for ultra-Orthodox extremists to burn churches or Bibles in Israel. Not far from the ministry center is the Narkiss Street Baptist Church. In 2007, the church was damaged in a fire believed to be set by ultra-Orthodox Jews. The church building had been rebuilt on the site of a church facility destroyed 25 years prior by anti-Christian groups.

Other recent anti-Christian attacks in Israel have included the bombing of a Messianic Jewish pastor’s home that left his teenage son clinging to life, the disruption of religious services by mobs of protestors and assaults on members of groups deemed “missionaries” by far-right, Orthodox Jews.

The Alliance Church building was constructed roughly 100 years ago. Palestine Bible College was founded at the building.

In 1948, after Zionist leaders declared the establishment of the State of Israel, the church opened other buildings in the Old City of Jerusalem to serve Arab Christians hampered from attending religious services by newly established political realities. Since 1967, Sara said, the building has been used for many purposes.

Sara said his church will host a prayer meeting on Saturday (Nov. 6) to ask for protection of the congregation and for a blessing on its enemies.

In a statement provided to the press, Sara said he wanted the church building to be “a beacon of light reflecting God’s love to all people.”

“We will continue to serve the Holy Land residents from this place, proclaiming peace and justice for all human beings, declaring God’s love for all of our neighbors, friends and enemies,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News


Witnesses expected to connect murder of three Christians with political conspiracy.

MALATYA, Turkey, January 20 (Compass Direct News) – Lawyers in the case of three Christians who were murdered for their faith here are lining up witnesses in an effort to expand the accused from five young suspects to subversive forces at the top of state power.

Evidence in recent hearings suggests the April 2007 murders in southeast Turkey were instigated by Ergenekon, a loose collection of ultra-nationalist generals, businessmen, mafia and journalists who planned to engineer a coup d’état in Turkey.

At a hearing at Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Jan. 16), plaintiff attorneys said they would like to call as a witness Ergun Poyraz, a journalist arrested in 2007 who has been linked to Ergenekon. Prosecuting attorneys said they believe that Poyraz, who has written inflammatory rhetoric against missionaries and accused Turkey’s prime minister of being part of a Zionist conspiracy, was not directly involved in planning the murders but has important knowledge of the players within Ergenekon.

The lawyers said they hope his testimony will help sort out the tangled web of connections and determine the role of Malatya security forces in the attack, particularly that of the chief of police in the district, Ali Osman Kahya.

“In the course of the publishing house murders, Ali Osman Kahya was the head of Malatya security forces, which is no coincidence,” said plaintiff attorney Murat Dincer. He said Kahya had been in similar positions of authority during other political murders.

Other lawyers involved in the case said they are less hopeful, believing Poyraz will only use his testimony as a platform for political grandstanding and propaganda for the political conspiracy.

“I don’t believe he will be helpful,” one legal worker told Compass. “I think he will only put on a show and manipulate the subject.”

Poyraz was arrested in 2007 for having connections to the Association for the Union of Patriotic Forces, a group whose members include military men also indicted in Ergenekon. Turkish media recently revealed that Poyraz had been keeping detailed records on high-level military officials prior to his arrest, according to Today’s Zaman national daily.

The team of plaintiff lawyers has requested Poyraz’s written statements from the Istanbul 13th Criminal Court.

The court in Malatya has sent an informal inquiry to the prosecutor of the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul asking if there is a concrete connection between the Ergenekon case and the Malatya murders. If the prosecutor replies positively, the Malatya court will decide whether to integrate the murder trial with the Ergenekon case.

If the cases are not integrated, then the five young suspects will likely be tried for murder in a matter of months, and all will receive life sentences, said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who leads the team of plaintiff lawyers who represent the interests of the victims’ families.

Lawyers said they believe establishing the guilt of the suspects should be a straightforward process, but Cengiz said that if the case is integrated into Ergenekon, “then it will continue forever.”

No witnesses testified at the Friday hearing. The plaintiff team eventually hopes to bring 21 witnesses to the stand in subsequent hearings.


Impact on Defense

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were brutally tortured and killed at a publishing house in Malatya on April 18, 2007.

Emre Gunaydin – the suspected ringleader – along with Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who have been in jail for the past 18 months, are accused of the murder. They were all between 19 and 21 years old at the time of the crime.

The Malatya trial judges and defense attorneys are also adjusting their legal proceedings in light of the case’s incipient expansion from a murder case to an investigation into the political conspiracy. Noting that there could have been others involved in the murder, Presiding Judge Eray Gurktekin quoted an article from the Turkish Penal Code that states a punishment can be reduced if the guilty party is found to be solicited for the crime.

“You should think about considering this,” he said to defense lawyers.

The lawyer for Gunaydin said he had reminded his client of this article, and that they wanted to pursue this legal line in the next hearing.

Plaintiff attorneys won a minor legal victory that had eluded them in earlier hearings: The hearings will now be recorded. In previous months Malatya judges refused three plaintiff requests to record the trial hearings.

In February 2008 an Istanbul court allowed the first courtroom taping of a trial hearing at the trial of Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007.


Unearthing Plot

Earlier this month, Turkish police uncovered major arms caches by excavating sites connected to Ergenekon members. Security forces believe the weapons indicated the future plans of the group and their violent activates in the past.

Two weeks ago a new wave of detentions revealed evidence that the group was planning to assassinate the prime minister, members of the Supreme Court of Appeals, and Armenian community leaders.

Older Ergenekon documents make mention of church members in Turkey in Izmir, Mersin and Trabzon. Members of those churches were attacked or killed in following years. This month a 19-year-old Muslim in Izmir was sentenced to prison for stabbing a Catholic priest in 2007.

The Ergenekon organization has been blamed for the murder of other high-profile Christians. Ergin Cinmen, the lawyer for the family of Dink, has called for an investigation into the links between Ergenekon, the Malatya massacre and the murders of Dink and Father Andrea Santoro, an Italian priest killed in Trabzon in 2006.

He made these comments in the context of recently discovered plans to attack the Armenian community of Sivas in central Turkey, according to Bianet, an online Turkish news service.

In the last year, police have arrested more than 100 people in the ongoing Ergenekon case, which has been the dominant event in Turkish media for several months.  

Report from Compass Direct News