(HANNAH PARRY) The Galilee church where Jesus was believed to have performed the miracle of feeding the 5,000 has been set alight in a suspected arson attack.
Hebrew graffiti was also scrawled across the walls of Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish which denounces the worship of ‘false gods’.
An adviser to the Catholic Church has now blamed Jewish extremists for the ‘deplorable’ attack after Israeli police said there is a ‘strong possibility’ the fire was started deliberately.
A monk and a church volunteer were hospitalised from smoke inhalation, but the incredibly, the prayer area was unaffected.
The nationalist crimes unit of the Israeli police’s West Bank settlement division is now investigating the incident.
Father Gregory Collins, head of the Order of Saint Benedict in Israel, which maintains the site, said more than 5,000 people visit the church daily. He said the church would be closed for the next three days due to the fire damage.
‘It’s deplorable, absolutely deplorable. I consider such an attack to be not just an attack on a religious site, on a sanctuary, but also on one of the most visited places in Israel,’ Collins said.
‘It is also an attack on freedom of speech, democracy and the right to live here.’
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the incident and ordered the head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency to ‘to conduct a full and speedy investigation.’
‘This morning’s outrageous arson attack on a church is an attack on us all. In Israel freedom of worship is one of our core values and is guaranteed under the law,’ Netanyahu said.
‘Those responsible for this despicable crime will face the full force of the law. Hate and intolerance have no place in our society.’
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said authorities would make every effort to apprehend those responsible.
‘Such terrible desecration of an ancient and holy place of prayer is an attack on the very fabric of life in our country, where people of different faiths seek to live together in harmony and mutual tolerance and respect,’ Rivlin said.
The church’s Byzantine mosaic floor, and the religious significance of the site, draws thousands of visitors of all faiths each year making one of the most popular stops for Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.
Father Matthias Karl, a German monk from the church, said a souvenir shop, an office for pilgrims and a meeting room were badly damaged, and bibles and prayer books were destroyed in the fire.
He said: ‘It’s totally destroyed. The fire was very active.’
A passage from a Jewish prayer, calling for the elimination of idol worship, was also found scrawled in red spray paint on a wall outside the church after the arson attack
Wadie Abu Nasser, an adviser to the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, said the apparent arson attack would reverberate throughout the Christian world.
‘Israel’s global image will be harmed,’ he told Israeli public radio.
‘When you put one and one together, between the graffiti and the arson, you can reach a conclusion regarding the potential suspects.’
Officers had initially arrested 16 Jewish seminary students from West Bank settlements in connection with the fire but all the youths have since been released.
Their lawyer, Itamar Ben Gvir, told Israeli Army Radio the police had no evidence against the youths and that they were under suspicion simply for looking like young settlers.
In recent years, mosques and churches have been targeted by vandals in similar attacks. They are often attributed to extremist Jews in West Bank settlements.
Such attacks are widely condemned across the political spectrum in Israel.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely condemned yesterday’s church burning and said Israel respects freedom of worship for all religions.
Last year, a group of mostly Jewish youth attacked the Church of the Multiplication’s outdoor prayer area along the Sea of Galilee, pelting worshippers with stones, destroying a cross and throwing benches into the lake, according to Father Matthias.
There has been a long line of attacks on Christian and Muslim holy places in both Israel and the West Bank, in which the perpetrators are believed to have been Jewish extremists.
‘I absolutely condemn such acts,’ deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely said in a statement.
The site is owned by the German Roman Catholic Church, and Berlin’s envoy to Israel Andreas Michaelis said he was ‘shocked’ by the incident.
‘I strongly condemn this attack and every form of violence’ against places of worship or people working in them, he said in a statement.
‘Religious institutions must be as well protected in Israel as they are in Germany and Europe.’
Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, said such incidents ‘go against Jewish values and human morality.’
‘I call upon religious leaders to be vigilant lest extremist phenomena erode the respectful relations that exist between the faiths in Israel,’ he said in a statement.
‘The delicate fabric of these relations must be preserved.’
Nahum Weisfish, a rabbi from Jerusalem, went to the church with an interfaith delegation to express sympathy and condemn the attack.
He said the site might have been targeted because it housed a synagogue some 2,000 years ago. ‘But either way it is forbidden for this to be done like this. We came to condemn this,’ he said.