Arson was suspected at a Jerusalem church Monday night after a fire caused minor damage hours after Pope Francis held a service nearby.
Witnesses said the fire, at the Dormition Abbey, was deliberately set. They told police they saw a man taking a candle and lighting the guestbook on fire before fleeing. The nearby pipe organ sustained damage but the fire was quickly put out, Army Radio reported. Police opened an investigation into the incident.
“Someone entered the church, went down to the crypt, picked up a book used by pilgrims and took it to the small room near the organ and set it on fire, burning wooden crosses,” Brother Nikodemus Schnabel told AFP.
Hours before the fire, Pope Francis held a mass at the Cenacle, or upper room, on a site thought to be where Jesus held his Last Supper.
Dormition Abbey, which sits right next to the Cenacle, was the site of a graffiti attack in May 2013. Vandals spray painted anti-Christian slurs on the church’s walls, drawing wide condemnations.
Ahead of the pope’s visit, Jewish activists had protested the papal service at the Cenacle, which sits above a tomb believed to belong to King David, as a sign of Church plans for control of the spot.
The Cenacle is not often used for Christian rites, in a bid by Israel to keep the delicate status quo at the site.
The Vatican is in talks with Israel for increased rights to hold services there, but some ultra-Orthodox and Jewish nationalists have lobbied against any changes.
Israeli and Vatican officials insisted that talks are not about ceding the building to the church, but rumors to that effect persisted, further exacerbating tensions.
Ahead of the pope’s visit, police issued orders against a number of Jewish ultra-nationalists to stay away from parts of Jerusalem to keep them from disturbing the pope’s visit.
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