Image: vandalized synagogue
Carlos Hernandez  /  AP
A member of the Jewish community views a vandalized tabernacle in a synagogue at the Israeli Association of Venezuela headquarters in Caracas on Saturday.
updated 1/31/2009 10:14:26 PM ET 2009-02-01T03:14:26

An armed group vandalized Caracas' oldest synagogue, shattering religious objects and spray-painting walls in what Jewish leaders called the worst attack ever on their community in Venezuela.

Two security guards were overpowered by about 15 people who ransacked the synagogue's sanctuary and offices late Friday, leaving graffiti such as: "We don't want murderers," and "Jews, get out."

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro condemned the attack and promised it would be investigated, while reiterating his government's opposition to what he called Israel's "criminal" government.

"We respect the Jewish people, but we ask respect for the people of Palestine and their right to life," Maduro said in a ceremony called to welcome home two Venezuelan diplomats expelled from Israel this week.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry ordered the envoys to leave after Venezuela expelled all Israeli diplomats on Jan. 6, to protest Israel's offensive in the Gaza strip. President Hugo Chavez labeled Israeli leaders as "genocidal."

Nearly 1,300 Palestinians died in the three weeks of fighting.

Leaders of Venezuela's estimated 15,000-member Jewish community warned that vocal denunciations of Israel by Chavez and the country's government-funded news media may have encouraged Friday's attack.

"These declarations permeate society," said Abraham Levy, president of the Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations.

The incident forced the synagogue to cancel Saturday's worship service.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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