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Hundreds of New Testaments torched in Israel

(CNN) -- Police in Israel are investigating the burning of hundreds
of New Testaments in a city near Tel Aviv, an incident that has
alarmed advocates of religious freedom.

Investigators plan to review photographs and footage showing "a
fairly large" number of New Testaments being torched this month in
the city of Or-Yehuda, a police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said

News accounts in Israel have quoted Uzi Aharon, the deputy mayor of
Or-Yehuda, as saying he organized students who burned several hundred
copies of the New Testament. The deputy mayor gave interviews to
Israeli radio and television stations after word of the incident
surfaced about two weeks ago.

Soon he was talking with Russian, Italian and French television
stations, "explaining to their highly offended audiences back home
how he had not meant for the Bibles to be burned, and trying to undo
the damage caused by the news (and photographs) of Jews burning New
Testaments," The Jerusalem Post reported.

Aharon told CNN on Wednesday that he collected New Testaments and
other "Messianic propaganda" that had been handed out in the city but
that he did not plan or organize a burning. Instead, he said, three
teenagers set fire to a pile of New Testaments while he was not
present. Once he learned what was going on, he said, he stopped the

The episode has worried defenders of Israel's minority population of
Messianic Jews, who consider themselves Jewish but believe in the
divinity of Jesus, as do Christians. It also has concerned
evangelical Christians in North America, Europe and Asia, who visit
Israel by the hundreds of thousands.

Calev Myers, an attorney for Messianic Jews in Israel, told CNN he
plans to file a formal complaint Thursday with the national police at
the request of the United Christian Council in Israel, an umbrella
organization for a few dozen Christian organizations outside Israel.

"I hope the people who are responsible for breaking the law will be
indicted and prosecuted," he said.

About 200 New Testaments were burned, Aharon said, but he saved
another 200.

His goal was to stop attempts to distribute Christian literature in
the city, he said.

Myers, however, said he doubts that Messianic Jewish missionaries
distributed the New Testaments. He said it's not clear how the
volumes found their way into homes in Or-Yehuda.

The deputy mayor told CNN he respects the New Testament and would not
do what has been done to the Jews in the past -- a reference to Nazi
burning of Jewish and other books in the 1930s, and other occasions
when Jewish texts, including sacred ones, were burned.

Myers said his complaint will ask the authorities to investigate
possible violations of two Israeli laws. One forbids the destruction
or desecration of any religious icon or item that a group holds
sacred. Another bans people from speaking publicly in a way that
offends or humiliates a certain religion.

Both laws are meant to prevent people from inciting religious
violence, he said.

The burning controversy has unfolded against the backdrop of other
instances that Myers cited as examples of discrimination against
Messianic Jews in Israel.

About two months ago, the teenage son of a Messianic pastor was
severely injured when a package delivered to his home exploded, Myers
said. In addition, several rabbis urged students to boycott further
participation in a Bible competition after they learned that one
winner -- a high-school student in Israel -- was a Messianic Jew, he

Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League have sharply criticized the
burning of New Testaments.

"We condemn this heinous act as a violation of the basic Jewish
principles and values," said Rabbi Eric J. Greenburg, director of
interfaith policy for the Anti-Defamation League. "It is essential
that we respect the sacred texts of other faiths. The Jewish people
can never forget the tragic burning of sacred Jewish volumes at many
points in history."

"While there may be legitimate concerns of proselytizing, these
matters must be addressed through the proper legal channels,"
Greenburg said in a statement. "It is unacceptable and not legitimate
to burn someone else's sacred texts."


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