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Israeli man attempts to burn down Jerusalem's historic Gethsemane Church

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemns attack and blames it on Israeli government
A spokesperson for the firefighters said luckily the fire did not spread throughout the church.
Spokesperson for firefighters says blaze did not spread throughout church (AFP)

Israeli police said they arrested a man for attempting to set fire to East Jerusalem's Gethsemane Church on Friday.

The 49-year-old Israeli suspect allegedly snuck onto the Gethsemane Church's premises, poured flammable liquid on wooden pews and attempted to light them ablaze, according to local reports. 

He was stopped by Palestinian residents who handed him over to the police, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.

A spokesperson for the firefighters said four teams were dispatched to the site but the fire had "luckily not spread throughout the church".

"Preliminary investigation and the suspect's details strengthen the assessment that the background to the incident was criminal," police said.

Wadie Abunassar, a spokesman for the local clergy, said the suspect was "an Orthodox Jew who set fire to the interior of the church" and alleged there were possible "racist motives" behind the attack.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' office on Friday condemned the attempt to burn down the Gethsemane Church.

The Palestinian presidency described the act as a hateful terrorist attack, and said it blamed the Israeli government for the attempt, as well as other past assaults by settlers on Palestinians, their holy places and their property.

The attempted arson was "evidence of the brutality and savageness of the Israeli settlers who practice terrorism in plain full sight of the Israeli occupation forces", Wafa news agency quoted the president's office as saying.

Located at the foot of the Mount of Olives, the Gethsemane Church - also known as the Church of All Nations - is the biblical site where Jesus is believed to have prayed after the Last Supper, and where he was arrested before his trial and crucifixion.

Palestinian-American activist Yousef Munayyer hit out at US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the top diplomat's claim to support Christian rights while overlooking the plight of Palestinian Christians.

The Higher Presidential Commission for Churches Affairs, a Palestinian-led group, also condemned the attack.

Ramzy Khoury, the commission's chairman, said the incident was not the first of its kind on places of worship and on Islamic and Christian sanctities, especially in Jerusalem.

In 2015, Jewish extremists carried out an arson attack on the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, near Tiberias, and Israeli settlers have targeted Coptic priests in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Settler attacks on Palestinians and their properties have been on the rise over the past few years. The UN reported in June that the monthly average for settler attacks on Palestinians in 2020 was roughly equivalent to 2019, despite the pandemic, and was higher than the four years prior to that.