A Catholic church in northern Israel, said to be the site of Jesus’s feeding the 5,000, caught fire Thursday in what authorities say was a crime by Jewish extremists.
The Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes is located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in a village called Tabgha. Israeli police reported that although firefighters were quick to arrive on the scene of the overnight blaze, “extensive damage was caused to the church both inside and out.”
The church that exists today was built in the 1980s. But it stands on a site where churches commemorating the miracle have existed since at least the 4th century, and it showcases mosaic floors that date back to the 5th. It is maintained by the Catholic monastic Order of Saint Benedict. (RELATED: New Vatican Treaty Recognizes ‘State Of Palestine’)
According to one monk in the community, the fire destroyed Bibles and prayer books, as well as a gift shop, a meeting room and an office serving pilgrims to the site. A monk and a volunteer were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.
President Benjamin Netanyahu charged Israel’s Shin Bet security service with investigating the incident, calling it “an attack on all of us.”
A Hebrew message that was left on a wall of the church in red spray paint translates as “the false gods will be destroyed.” The phrase is a line from the prayer “Aleinu,” which is recited three times a day by observant Jews. This led police to suspect that the perpetrators were radical Jewish religious nationalists.
Police apprehended 16 young men, Jewish seminary students and residents of an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, who were visiting the area. The suspects were then released.
Jewish extremists have been credited with numerous attacks on Israeli non-Jewish property in recent years, including churches. They often use the spray-painted message “price tag,” meaning that the attacks are retribution for government destruction of settlements.
The vast majority of Christians in Israel are Arabs of Palestinian descent. They variously identify themselves as “Arab Israelis,” “Palestinian Arabs,” or “Palestinian Christians living in Israel.” (RELATED: Why Israeli Politicians Are Backing Mandatory First-Grade Arabic)
A widely-read Facebook page on Palestinian Christians noted Thursday that two attacks on churches in Jerusalem last year featured the spray-painted messages “Jesus is garbage” and “Death to Arabs and Christians and those who hate Israel.”