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Arsonists hit nativity scenes at two Melbourne churches

Arsonists have set fire to nativity scenes at Camberwell's Our Lady of Victories Basilica, days after a similar fire at the nearby Immaculate Conception Church, Hawthorn.

Yesterday's blaze, which took place around 4:00 pm, also damaged the marble altar at Out Lady of Victories, in addition to destroying carpets and filling the church with smoke.

"At the moment the basilica is just full of smoke," Monsignor Brian Walsh told the Herald-Sun. "Some 1500 people are meant to be coming on Christmas Eve for the 6pm and midnight masses, but we won't be moving the ceremonies anywhere -- the show must go on."

Police said the fire started in hay bales in the basilica's nativity scene.

"It's an open church, which means you can enter 24 hours, so there was no evidence of a break-in," a spokeswoman said.

Last Thursday, a hay-filled crib was also the fuel for the fire at the nativity scene at Hawthorn's Immaculate Conception.

"Someone was trying to destroy the spirit of Christmas," said a spokesperson. "We're still going to have a nativity scene but we will be using sand instead of hay in it."

Meanwhile threats of violence hang over Christian churches in Indonesia. The Australian reports that along with choir practice and nativity scenes, priests and pastors have had to plan bomb checks and organise armed security.

On Christmas Eve 2000, terrorist network Jemaah Islamiah bombed 11 churches across Indonesia, killing 19 people. National police chief Da'i Bachtiar last week declared two-thirds of the nation's police force - about 140,000 officers - would be deployed to guard churches and other potential targets during the crucial period.

Jakarta's Catholic cathedral, which sits opposite one of the biggest mosques in the southern hemisphere, was one of the churches shaken by the Christmas Eve bombs.

Dean Fr Wisnu Murti said security would be a co-operative effort with the military and the police. "We will use the tools we have to," he said. "Last year we used two metal detectors."

Naturally, he said, the congregation is nervous, but big crowds were still expected to attend mass.

Arsonists hit two churches (Herald-Sun 23/12/03)
Grim warnings for churches (The Australian 23/12/03)

Immaculate Conception Hawthorn
Our Lady of Victories Camberwell (Archdiocese of Melbourne)
Our Lady of Victories Camberwell (Walking Melbourne)

23 Dec 2003