Bahai News -- The Gainsville Sun - Fire damages fourth house of worship in LA neighborhood

Fire damages fourth house of worship in LA neighborhood

Associated Press Writer


The attacks have been brazen, rapid and seemingly indiscriminate, with four houses of worship representing a variety of faiths set afire in just 11 days, by someone bold enough to operate in daylight and even in the shadows of a fire station.

"You know these senseless acts are more than just crimes," Mayor James Hahn said hours after the fourth attack targeted the Valley Beth Shalom synagogue Wednesday morning. So far no one has been hurt.

A stained-glass window was shattered and a firebomb tossed inside the synagogue, which is located on one of the suburban San Fernando Valley's busiest streets. The attack took place about 6:30 a.m., just as the morning rush hour was beginning.

The nearby Bahai Community Center, most of whose congregation is Iranian, and an Iranian synagogue were struck two days earlier, about 12 hours apart. The First Presbyterian Church of Encino, which sits next door to a fire station, was hit on April 26.

"People have come here because maybe they faced persecution in other countries for practicing their faith. So this is something we can't tolerate here in Los Angeles." Hahn told reporters outside Valley Beth Shalom.

Authorities believe the same person is responsible for each of the attacks, which occurred within a five-mile radius in one of the valley's more fashionable neighborhoods.

"Certainly that is the assumption because of the geographic location," said Fire Chief William Bamattre.

Wednesday's attack came close to destroying the temple's sacred scrolls, but a maintenance worker was able to carry them to safety as the building's automatic sprinkler system doused the flames.

"I'm not Jewish but I feel like this is mine. I feel like a part of this congregation," the tearful maintenance worker, Marcial Cuno, told KNBC-TV.

The First Presbyterian Church suffered an estimated $20,000 in damage, including a church office that was gutted.

"We're just horrified ... it just sickens all of us," said Jennifer Laing, whose husband is church pastor.

A damage estimate was not immediately available for the Iranian synagogue, where the roof was burned, but the Bahai Community Center suffered at least $10,000 in damage.

Still, it could have been much worse, said Randolph Dobbs, the center's secretary. Two off-duty paramedics spotted the flames at 11:15 a.m. and doused them with a garden hose until firefighters arrived.

"To us it was divine providence," Dobbs said. "It's an older wooden building. In a few minutes, it would have all gone down."

He said about 60 percent of the center's congregation is from Iran, where the Bahai faith originated.

"This resonates because they had to flee the country for their lives," Dobbs said. "They thought this was a country of free worship."

Officials and religious leaders gathered at Valley Beth Shalom predicted the attacker would soon fall into the dragnet of at least 65 detectives from local and federal law enforcement agencies investigating the crimes.

"This attack occurred just as the rush hour was beginning. Undoubtedly, there are people out there with information," said City Councilman Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor who announced a $25,000 reward for information that helps solve the crimes.

©Copyright 2003, The Gainsville Sun (FL, USA)

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