May 28, 2008 -- Updated 1202 GMT (2002 HKT)
By Mark Bixler
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 Wednesday.
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 burning.
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 said.
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."