Arson Suspected at Church of Loaves and Fish in Northern Israel

Prime Minister Netanyahu orders accelerated investigation of fire and vandalism, saying, 'Hate and intolerance have no place in our society.'

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A nun inspects the damage at a room located on the complex of the Church of the Multiplication, June 18, 2015.
A nun inspects the damage at a room located on the complex of the Church of the Multiplication, June 18, 2015.Credit: AFP

Police suspect that a fire Wednesday night at the historic Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee, was a hate crime. Two people were lightly hurt from smoke inhalation and serious damage was done to the church, whose roof collapsed.

Sixteen yeshiva students, reportedly West Bank settlers, were detained yesterday as suspects in the arson but were released without charge at 2 p.m.

Since 2011, 17 Muslim and Christian places of worship have been torched in Israel with nobody indicted in any of the cases.

Two people, a 19-year-old tourist and a 79-year-old church volunteer were lightly injured from smoke inhalation. There were 12 volunteers in the church at the time of the attack. The fire caused serious damage to the church structure, roof, reception room, storeroom and the nuns’ office, Tiberias police commander Supt. Ran Levy said.

Graffiti, in Hebrew, was found on site, reading “False idols will be smashed.” The worship area suffered light damage due to smoke.

Five fire fighting teams worked from 3:50 A.M. for three hours to put out the fire, which stopped at the entrance to the prayer compound. Hundreds of books were burned, the roof caught fire and the tiles fell to the ground. The church’s gift store was also seriously damaged and a thick layer of soot covered the exhibits.

“This is an extremely grave event,” Levy said. “We’re gathering findings to locate the suspects.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, Yoram Cohen, to conduct an accelerated

investigation into the incident, his office announced.

“The shocking torching of a church is an attack on all of us,” Netanyahu said. “Freedom of worship in Israel is one of the foundation stones of our values and is protected by law. We will exercise the full weight of the law with those responsible for this criminal act. Hate and intolerance have no place in our society.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan denounced the attack as an “act of lowly cowardice which I fiercely condemn.” He ordered the northern district police to make investigation of this incident a top priority, adding: “We will not let anyone disrupt the coexistence between religions and ethnic groups in Israel. Harming the principle of tolerance between religions is a blow to the most crucial values in Israel, and we will show zero tolerance for acts like these.”

The Catholic Church in Israel told Haaretz that it saw this attack as a continuation of the aggression against holy Christian sites over the last few years, which it said the Israeli government and authorities have failed to deal with accordingly. A report on the matter has been given to the Vatican, the sources said.

Authorities are investigating possible causes for the fire, including arson.

The church is believed to be the site where Jesus fed throngs after loaves and fishes miraculously multiplied, and is home to renowned, eye-catching mosaics.

German Ambassador Andreas Michaelis went to the church following the attacks, and said he was disgusted by the act of arson. He called on Israel to ensure that religious institutions remain protected and that incidents like this do not happen again.

The Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef commented, “The deviant behavior of church arsonists in the north must be condemned absolutely, and they should be punished severely.” He said all Jews are bound by religious law to stop this type of behavior, referring to the traditional Jewish law of the pursuer.

He added, “Judaism has always been proud of being a light unto the nations and not, heaven forbid, the opposite.”

Since the beginning of the year a room in the Greek Orthodox monastery in East Jerusalem and a church in the village of Jab’a were torched. Last year the mosques in Deir Istiya and Aqraba in the West Bank and one in Umm al Fahm in northern Israel were set on fire. In 2013 a fire bomb was thrown at Beit Jimal Monastery near Beit Shemesh.

Since the beginning of the year a room in the Greek Orthodox monastery in East Jerusalem and a church in the village of Jab’a were torched. Last year the mosques in Deir Istiya and Aqraba in the West Bank and one in Umm al Fahm in northern Israel were set on fire. In 2013 a fire bomb was thrown at Beit Jimal Monastery near Beit Shemesh.

Graffiti near the Church of the Multiplication in northern Israel reading "And false idols will be smashed." (Credit: Israel Fire and Rescue Services)

Fire damage at the historic Church of the Multiplication in northern Israel, June 18, 2015. (Credit: Israel Fire and Rescue Services)

Graffiti near the Church of the Multiplication in northern Israel reading "And false idols will be smashed." (Credit: Israel Fire and Rescue Services)

Fire damage at the historic Church of the Multiplication in northern Israel, June 18, 2015. (Credit: Israel Fire and Rescue Services)

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