Famed Church in Israel Reopens 20 Months After Arson Blamed on Jewish Extremists

Church of the Loaves and Fish suffered heavy damage after a 2015 attack. 'Hate cannot win,' President Rivlin says at special mass.

President Reuven Rivlin at the interfaith ceremony at the church, February 12, 2017.
Mark Neiman / GPO

One of the most famous Catholic churches in Israel reopened with a special mass on Sunday, almost two years after it was damaged during an arson attack blamed on Jewish extremists.

The church, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, marks the traditional site of Jesus' miracle of the loaves and fish. It is one of the most popular stops for Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin attended the reopening ceremony at the Church of the Loaves and Fish on Sunday, saying he wanted "to say loud and clearly, that hate cannot win."

“We stand up for religious freedom because, as a people, we know very well what it means to suffer religious persecution. And we stand up for religious freedom because we are a democratic state – who believe in the rights for everyone to worship God according to their belief,” Rivlin said. 

“We are all equal before God, and equal before the law.”

The 2015 arson caused extensive damage to the building. Israel contributed about $394,000 towards the reconstruction, but the amount was less than hoped, according to Heinz Thiel, secretary general of the German Association of the Holy Land, which owns the church.

The Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes
Gil Eliyahu

"After about eight months of construction, the atrium and entrance to the Multiplication Church are finally accessible again to visitors from all over the world," said Thiel.

In July 2015, the principal defendant, Yinon Reuveni, 20, was charged in Nazareth District Court with setting fire to the church for racist motives. His co-defendant, Yehuda Asraf, 19, was charged with assisting him and providing the car used to carry out the crime.

The indictment says Reuveni had conspired with other people, apart from Asraf, to set fire to the church. The motive was Reuveni’s hatred for Christianity. “Reuveni has extremist views. He sees Christians as idol worshippers and their destruction as a mitzvah,” the charges sheet says.

DPA contributed to this report.