Bahai News -- The Los Angles Daily News - House-of-worship attacks unite religious leaders Article Published: Thursday, May 08, 2003 - 10:30:11 PM PST

House-of-worship attacks unite religious leaders

Various San Fernando Valley religious leaders pray during a ceremony. (Andy Holzman / Daily News)
By Jason Kandel, Mariel Garza and Ryan Oliver
Staff Writers

Thursday night at a Catholic church in solidarity against an arsonist who has firebombed four religious buildings in Encino and might be linked to a fifth attack.

City and religious leaders expressed both outrage and resolve to the crowd at St. Cyril's Catholic Church in Encino.

"We live together in an ark called Los Angeles, and our ark is plagued by the darkness of hatred and intolerance," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

"As a resident of this city I am shocked and outraged. ... These are acts of racism. These are acts of hatred."

City Councilman Jack Weiss said the community will rise above the challenge, and the arsonist will be captured.

"The message tonight is very clear: Those who seek to spread hatred and intolerance in America, they always fail," Weiss said. "They only manage to bring us closer together."

The interfaith meeting came as more than 100 investigators fanned out across Encino and surrounding areas in search of the arsonist. As residents and dignitaries discussed the problem, unmarked cars manned by the Los Angeles Police Department, city Fire Department arson unit, the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms kept watch over the church and the neighborhood.

Encino residents said the arson attacks have created a sense of unrest in the community.

"I feel the community has to do something to protect itself. There is fear this will spread, and it's hard for us to know what the motivation is," said Eileen Healy of Encino. "Hopefully police will get the right guy. We don't know if the guy is antireligious or just fascinated by fire."

Joyce Greene, a parishioner of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Encino, said she is on edge. "It's been very upsetting. It gives us a feeling of not knowing who is going to be next," Greene said.

LAPD Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell assured the congregation that authorities won't give up until the arsonist is caught.

"We take this very seriously. It truly is a hate crime. We're going to work very hard until we catch whoever is responsible for this."

Earlier in the day, authorities said a cinder block tossed Tuesday through a window at D'Torah Jewish Educational Center in Encino could be the fifth incident linked to an arsonist who has struck two synagogues, a Presbyterian church and a Bahai faith center since April 26.

Flammable liquid also was found near the educational center, in the 16300 block of Ventura Boulevard.

"We're going back and looking at all vandalism reported in the area at religious institutions," said Mark Leap, second in command of the Los Angeles Police Department's Counter-Terrorism Bureau. "We're also talking to all religious institutions."

Before dawn Thursday, police arrested a man on suspicion of trespassing near California State University, Northridge, and questioned him about the fires. He was later released.

"We haven't cleared him," said LAPD spokeswoman Mary Grady. "We're not going to eliminate anybody. We don't know if it was one person or several people."

More than 150 local and federal investigators have been assigned to the high-priority case. The LAPD has assigned 65 detectives from its Counter-Terrorism Bureau, which has specialists in hate crimes.

District Attorney Steve Cooley has also assigned his specialists in hate crimes and arson to the case.

"They're aggressively working with local and federal investigative agencies to assist in developing and gathering evidence for future prosecution of a perpetrator or perpetrators of these condemnable acts against religious buildings of worship," Cooley said in a printed statement.

Investigators have been fielding calls to a tip line, Grady said, and the pace of the investigation is brisk.

Police fanned out this week asking religious leaders at more than 100 institutions whether there have been any suspicious incidents that might not have been reported.

"We can't relax," said Steven Koff, the director of B'nai Brith, based in Woodland Hills. "We're all on alert."

©Copyright 2003, The Los Angles Daily News (CA, USA)

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