Greek police have arrested one American, two Britons and a local citizen for twice torching a 600-year-old synagogue that was recently restored. A second American is at-large, possibly in Italy.
The Etz Chaim synagogue in the port city of Hania is Crete’s only Jewish house of worship. The 15th century building was restored in 1999 to serve as a museum and prayer center on the Sabbath, Jewish holidays and special occasions.
The American, 24 years old, and the Britons, ages 23 and 33, have been living on the island of Crete for the last three months and worked in odd jobs, such as waiting on tables. The American faces charges in court on Thursday.
Greek police said they were able to break the case after the Greek suspect confessed to the arson attacks, one on January 5, when he and the Britons allegedly set the synagogue on fire, and one on the Sabbath two weeks ago. The second attack destroyed 2,500 rare books and the wooden roof of the building.
Greek police are investigating the possibility that the gang was planning to form a terrorist organization. One of the British citizens apparently was the ring leader, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper.
After the arsons, the U.S. State Department commented that the attacks were "clearly intended to intimidate and terrorize Greek's Jewish community,” which numbers approximately 8,000 and which recently has suffered several anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues and cemeteries.
The Etz Chaim website notes that the old building- before it was restored - was seen by many Crete residents as "a monument to the success of the Nazis in obliterating 2,300 years of Jewish life.” The museum added that the restoration was a "vibrant statement of Jewish life, vitality and values. Museum director Nicholas Stavroulakis has vowed to restore the building.
The Nazis decimated the Jewish community in Crete in 1941.