Two suspected arson attacks against vehicles belonging to the Jesuits, one very early yesterday and the other last November, happened just days after the priestly order broadcast their views against racism and xenophobia.

At around midnight on Sunday, four cars and three vans belonging to the Jesuit community at St Aloysius College were set on fire and completely destroyed. The vehicles were used for work associated with the college, priestly ministries and youth activities. Duty Magistrate Joseph Apap Bologna has launched an inquiry.

Following yesterday's fire, it turned out that a similar incident had befallen the order last November, when two cars and a motorcycle belonging to the Jesuit community at Tal-Qroqq, Msida, were also burnt out in what looked like an arson attack. That incident never made the headlines but the more recent incident strengthened suspicions among the Jesuits that the November fire was no accident after all.

Yesterday morning, referring to incident of Sunday night, Jesuit provincial Paul Chetcuti said: "The police are conducting investigations, but the indications are that the cause of the fire is not accidental."

Referring to the November fire, Fr Chetcuti said in a statement that cars of the Jesuit community at Dar Patri Manwel Magri had been destroyed on the night between November 15 and 16.

On that occasion too, the police were called in and a magisterial inquiry was held but so far the Jesuits have not been informed of the inquiry results.

"There are common elements linking the two incidents: both took place in the middle of the night; both incurred the total loss of the vehicles; both happened immediately after a press conference given by the Jesuit Centre of Faith and Justice (CFJ),"

Fr Chetcuti said. Before the November burnings, the Jesuits had held a press conference announcing the publication of the proceedings of the National Conference on Racism and Xenophobia and the Jesuit Province to promote racial tolerance.

Fr Chetcuti had at the time stated publicly: "You can't call yourself a Christian and a racist at the same time. It's a contradiction".

Calling for a nationwide campaign to curb the rise of racism, the Jesuits claimed it was up to the authorities to ensure that this cauldron of emotions did not spill over and that everybody had a part to play in knocking some sense into the debate, be it the politicians, the Church and the media.

Yesterday's incident followed the publication, last Saturday, of an-EU commissioned report on the level of racism and xenophobia in Malta.

"The Jesuits remain fully committed to promote tolerance and respect for the dignity of every human person of whatever race, gender, creed or opinion," Fr Chetcuti said yesterday.

A spokesman for Family and Social Solidarity Minister Dolores Cristina told The Times that "in light of the fact that the police deem the destruction of seven cars belonging to the Jesuit Province to be a deliberate act of vandalism, the ministry thoroughly deplores the incident which goes against the foundations of a society based on dialogue.

"Ms Cristina firmly believes all citizens will voice their abomination of this violent act. The Maltese have been and will continue to be firm in their complete condemnation of inexplicable events such as these, which only aim at fragmenting our society.

"Our society, our European country, will continue to strengthen its very foundations of respect and understanding of all forms of diversity," the spokesman said.

Ms Cristina said she has faith in the police investigation and the magisterial inquiry and hopes that "the persons responsible for such a terrible act will be swiftly brought to justice". Since Iraqis and Bosnians started seeking shelter here in the 1990s, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has been assisting refugees. The JRS came under the limelight more recently with the influx of illegal immigrants from Africa.

Ever since, the Jesuit order has been the target of criticism from right-wingers because of its stand favouring tolerance and its public warnings that the problem of xenophobia is on the rise.

A group of rightists posting comments on the internet yesterday welcomed the news. Those who post such comments on the website use a pen name to hide their identity: "I heard from the grapevine that last night all the Jesuits' cars parked in St Aloysius College grounds were burnt," a comment read. "That's nice. Were any Jesuits grilled?" was the reply. "Too bad. If Jesuits had been grilled we could have had a holocaust memorial day of our own in a year's time. Better luck next time arsonists."

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