JERUSALEM, June 26 (RNS)--Two recent attacks on a Conservative Jewish synagogueand on a Messianic Jewish (Christian) church in Jerusalem have stirredconcerns over a new wave of sectarian violence aimed at non-OrthodoxJewish groups in Israel.

Arsonists threw Molotov cocktails into a Conservative synagogue inthe Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot on Saturday evening, setting fire to the building's interior and causing thousands of dollars of damage, synagogue officials said. On Sunday, vandals also reportedly stole a Bible scroll from a Messianic Jewish congregation known as Netiv-Ya in Jerusalem's downtown area.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of Israel's Masoreti (Conservative Judaism)Movement, said police were investigating the possibility that anextremist Orthodox group carried out the arson attack.

An eyewitness reportedly saw three men wearing Orthodox skullcaps runningfrom the Ramot synagogue site Saturday night just after the arsonattempt, Bandel said. Police were still investigating the incident, aswell as the subsequent theft from the Messianic Jewish congregation.

Messanic Jews are Jews who accept Jesus as the messiah while still following some Jewish traditions and liturgical forms. Most mainstream Jews--Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike--consider Messianic Jews to be converts to Christianity.

Bandel blamed Israeli government and religious officials for turninga blind eye to previous similar acts of violence, saying that such anattitude encouraged extremism.

"Exactly three weeks ago, someone tried to burn up the same Ramotsynagogue by setting fire to the front door," Bandel said. "When thathappened, we turned to [Jerusalem] Mayor Ehud Olmert, to Israel's chief rabbis, and to the government authorities asking them to vehemently denounce theact. But we didn't get a response.

"It's tragic that in the Jewish state, we are witnessing the burningof synagogues," added Bandel. "I'm sure that if something like this hadhappened abroad, it would have been loudly denounced, but when thingshappen in Jerusalem, there is silence. People failed to read the writingon the wall.

"We as a movement denounce all such attacks, including the recentattack on the Messianic Jewish congregation, with which we have seriousdisagreements. Period."

Bandel said the synagogue fire consumed prayer books and Bibles,although the flames were put out just before they reached the cabinetwhere three Torah scrolls, containing the first five books of the HebrewBible, were kept. Handwritten Torah scrolls are regarded as sacredobjects, and they usually cost thousands of dollars each.

"The irony is that these are exactly the same prayer books andBibles that are used in an Orthodox synagogue," said Bandel.

Saturday's fire, in contrast to the arson incident of three weeksago, drew public comments and condemnations from top governmentofficials, including Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Chief Rabbi YisraelMeir Lau.

Barak in a press release described the arson attempt on thesynagogue as a "horrible act that chills the souls of all Jews."

Lau, meanwhile, told Israel Radio that "book-burning" couldeventually lead to more serious attacks that threaten human life.

The attacks come against a background of rising secular-religiouspolitical tensions, sparked by a prolonged political struggle by theultra-Orthodox Shas Party to obtain more government support for itsquasi-private educational system in exchange for continued participationin the Barak government.

Shas officials, including Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen,have refrained from commenting on the violence, which for many Jews inIsrael stirs chilling memories of pre-World War II Europe.

One lone member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party,however, did speak out publicly against the recent weekend's violence.

"I certainly denounce these acts," Knesset [parliament] member AvrahamRavitz said in an interview with RNS. "I hope that the police make a majoreffort to find these people, because for me it's a mystery who wouldprovoke such attacks. The ultra-Orthodox public certainly can't profit,they can only lose."

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