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Arsonists destroy Jewish center in Paris
Updated: 2004-08-23 08:52

Arsonists destroyed a Jewish community center in eastern Paris before dawn on Sunday, leaving behind red graffiti with menacing anti-Semitic messages such as "Jews get out."

Flames gnawed away the wooden doors and blackened the walls of the center, a meeting place for the elderly and disadvantaged located on the ground floor of a six-story building. Rescue workers said the center was gutted.

French police officers stand outside the damaged Jewish community center in Paris, Sunday Aug.22 2004. A fire destroyed the Jewish center but no one was hurt. Authorities immediately suspected the fire was deliberately set, as anti-Semitic graffiti was found scrawled at the site. [AP]

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and other top officials visited the center, the latest target in a years-long wave of anti-Jewish attacks in France.

"I came here today to say that France cannot accept a trivialization of anti-Semitism," the prime minister said. He promised that prosecutors would seek the maximum sentence of 20 years behind bars.

In a statement, President Jacques Chirac condemned the attack and pledged solidarity with the Jewish community.

The government is "determined to find the perpetrators of this unacceptable act so that they can be tried and convicted with the greatest severity" that the law allows, Chirac said.

Firefighters were called to the scene at about 3:30 a.m. and had extinguished the flames by early morning.

Authorities immediately suspected the fire was set deliberately. Inside the building, investigators found anti-Semitic graffiti and swastikas scrawled in red marker. One message read, "Without the Jews, the world is happy."

Visiting the site, rabbi Claude Zaffran said he was "deeply pained and distraught."

"We're very worried," he told The Associated Press. "I have the impression I'm seeing the same movie with the same script. Beyond the declarations and speeches, there must be strong actions to end the string of anti-Semitic acts."

Serge Benaim, a local Jewish community leader, also expressed frustration.

"It happens over and over again, every day now someone lashes out at Jews," he said. "We haven't resolved the problem."

France has suffered a long wave of anti-Semitic violence since 2000, coinciding with worsening tensions in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians.

Some of the violence has been blamed on young French Muslims, although the Muslim community itself is also a frequent target of racist attacks. France has the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe.

The government has already made efforts to tackle anti-Semitism. In December, it announced a wide-ranging campaign that includes encouraging French schools to lead class trips to Auschwitz and punishment for anti-Jewish remarks in the media.

Extra security at Jewish places of worship and schools and tough sanctions against anyone found guilty of anti-Semitic acts is also part of the policy. Sunday's fire was discovered by police assigned to patrol outside a nearby synagogue.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe and Paris Police Chief Jean-Paul Proust also visited the charred center, on a winding street lined with shops.

Proust noted that the fire could have been deadly.

"I have mobilized the best of my police officers," Proust said. "We will find those responsible. Sooner or later, they will be caught."

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