Synagogues burned across Europe

Published April 2, 2002

MARSEILLE, France (AP) - Thousands of Jews held prayer services yesterday near the charred remains of a synagogue, bringing an emotional close to a weekend that forced France and other European countries to confront the specter of anti-Semitism linked to Mideast tensions.

In Brussels, a synagogue was damaged by gasoline bombs, and police in Turkey heightened security at religious sites amid fears that violence in the Middle East could take its toll on European communities.

France deployed riot police at Jewish religious sites and schools nationwide after the arson attack late Sunday at Marseille's Or Aviv temple. The fire destroyed the 20-year-old synagogue, leaving it a blackened mass of wood and metal.

"We are a peaceful community," said Zvi Amar, a Jewish leader in Marseille, France's second-biggest city. "We don't understand why they are attacking us."

More than 3,000 people marched in silence to a cemetery near the burned synagogue. There, they recited prayers of mourning and buried remnants of the temple's five holy Torah scrolls, which were destroyed in the fire.

"I feel a very deep sadness," said Gerald Charbit, a member of the congregation. But he added: "We are going to rebuild."

Authorities would not comment on the cause of the fire and said they did not have any suspects. LCI television reported the building was doused with gasoline and set ablaze.

The attack was the third on a synagogue in France over the Passover-Easter weekend and it embarrassed the government, which has tried to play down accusations that anti-Semitism is a growing problem in the country.

President Jacques Chirac visited a synagogue in the northern port city of Le Havre yesterday to show his solidarity with the Jewish community.

"These acts are unimaginable, unpardonable and unspeakable and should be pursued and condemned as such," he said. "They infuriate France and the French."

In neighboring Belgium, authorities said attackers threw gasoline bombs through the windows of a Brussels synagogue late Sunday, causing a small fire. There were no injuries or major damage.

The Belgian government promised swift action to find the arsonists and increased security at Jewish sites.

"Under no circumstances can the situation in the Middle East be used as a pretext to perpetrate such acts of violence and of intolerance against a community that has always been integrated in our country," Foreign Minister Louis Michel said

Vandals in the Russian city of Kostroma scrawled a large black swastika across a synagogue Sunday night, the latest in a series of anti-Semitic incidents in the region, NTV television reported.

Jewish leaders in France have complained the government's foreign policy is too pro-Palestinian and has in the past encouraged attacks on Jewish targets from among the country's Muslim population. Islam is France's second-largest religion after Roman Catholicism.

A book published last month by a leading French anti-racism group and Jewish students chronicled about 400 recent attacks against Jews and Jewish sites around the country.

The French government argues that its policy is evenhanded. Earlier this year intellectuals debated the extent of the problem - and whether the attacks were anti-Semitic or common criminal acts.