Torched Church of Loaves and Fish Still Waiting for State Compensation

It's a pity thousands of tourists hoping to spend Christmas Eve at the historic church have to see 'what happens at the hands of Jewish extremists' says church official.

Gil Eliyahu

The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, which was badly damaged in an arson attack, has yet to receive the financial compensation promised by the state, more than six months after the attack. As a result, the historic Roman Catholic church on the shore of Lake Kinneret, is holding Christmas Eve services in a burnt structure.

Immediately after the attack, the property tax authorities informed the church that the state would compensate it for the damage, as is the norm in any case defined as a terror attack.

“But in September, they said they wouldn’t pay, because it’s not terror; it’s religious [an anti-Christian hate crime],” said Father Nikodemus Schnabel, spokesman for the Benedictine order in Israel, which oversees the church located at Tabgha.

After the tax authorities asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to rule on the issue, he ordered the state to pay because the arson was a hate crime carried out for ideological reasons. Two right-wing Jewish extremists have been indicted for the attack.

Even though Weinstein’s ruling was handed down three months ago, the church still hasn’t gotten the money.

Schnabel estimates the damage at 7.5 million shekels ($1.9 million), but he doesn’t know whether the compensation will cover that entire sum or only a fraction of it. While various organizations and individuals, including some rabbis, have offered help, raising enough to repair the church through donations alone would be impossible, he added.

But interviewed on Christmas Eve, Schnabel sought to look on the bright side. “Many Jewish friends and many Israeli friends” responded to the attack by saying “‘not in my name, this isn’t the Jewish religion, this isn’t Israel,’” he said. “There’s a lot of hatred for us, but a lot more love and support. Not from the economic standpoint, but from the emotional one.”

Father Matthias, who works at the church in Tabgha, echoed that view. “The fact that we have to wait for the money isn’t good, but during the time that has passed, we’ve seen beautiful and moving displays of solidarity,” he told Haaretz. “That brings us hope.”

But he noted that speedy repairs would also Israel’s interests. Thousands of tourists from around the world visit the church every week, he said, and it’s a pity they have to see “what happens at the hands of extremists – Jewish extremists.”

Tour guides have no choice but to explain how the damage occurred, he added, and “this is a new experience for many tourists. Most of them think the ‘bad people’ are on the other side. This [the attack] is the truth, but it isn’t Israel; it’s just a small group of extremists.”

The tax authority said it would compensate the church in line with the attorney general’s ruling, but “because the damage is complex,” it hasn’t yet finished processing claim. It is working “in full cooperation” with the church to complete the process, it added.