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Arson attack on Israeli Church could drive pilgrims away: official

Israel: 5th century church set on fire in suspected hate crime, June 2015
Ynet/Avihu Shapira
Prime Minister Netanyahu orders Shin Bet to launch investigation into attack; officials condemn arson

An arson attack that damaged a revered shrine in northern Israel where Christians believe Jesus performed a miracle, could drive pilgrims away and cause massive damage to the Catholic Church in Israel, a local official warned. 

Wadia Abu Nasser, the communications adviser of the Catholic Church in Israel, called for a strong reaction by the state.

"This is another incident in a chain of incidents," he told the Ynetnews site. "Grave desecration at the cemetery in Bar'am, arson in Latrun and Jerusalem, attacks on priests. We understand that this is just a handful, but this handful causes tremendous damage. Not just the damage worth millions of shekels here, but worldwide damage."

"People are calling me from all over the world to see what the situation is," he added. "Pilgrims are concerned whether it's safe to visit here. It's really terrible. I call on the authorities to deal with this incident and the chain of incidents in every way, both from a security perspective and from a cultural-educational one."

Ynet/Avihu Shapira

Abu Nasser told Ynet that "the Vatican is up to date, and not just them. We are getting phone calls from all over the world. There is concern. There are even pilgrims who are debating not coming to Israel."

The Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, is where many Christians believe Jesus fed the 5,000 in the miracle of the five loaves and two fish.

Some 5,000 people visit the site each day.

A church adviser blamed Jewish extremists for the incident and police later said they had detained 16 youths from settlements in the occupied West Bank for questioning.

"In an area near the church, 16 youths were detained for investigation in order to check their involvement in the incident before dawn," police spokeswoman Luba Samri said in a statement.

She said 10 of those detained were from Yitzhar, which is known as a bastion of extremists and where some residents have been involved in previous hate crimes.

However, Samri said later that the youths had been released without charge after providing statements to the authorities.

A member of the Roman Catholic Benedictine order, which manages the site, said one of the buildings within the compound was completely destroyed in the blaze but the church itself was not damaged.

Hebrew graffiti was found on another building within the complex, reading "Idols will be cast out" or destroyed. The text is part of a common Jewish prayer.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the "shocking" church torching is a heinous crime and an "attack on us all."

"Freedom of worship is one of Israel's cornerstones," the prime minister said. "Hatred and intolerance have no place in our society."

Netanyahu instructed Israel's Shin Bet internal security service head, Yoram Cohen, to conduct an accelerated investigation into the incident.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called the head of the Benedictine order in Israel to express his concern over the incident at the site, which is expected to be closed over the next three days.

Rivlin called the incident a "terrible desecration of an ancient and holy place of prayer that threatens the fabric of our state."

"There are people of all different faiths that live in Israel who want to live together in harmony, respect and solidarity. We are committed as a state and a society to protect the holy sites of all faiths," he said.

One of Christianity's holiest sites

The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes is considered as one of Christianity's holiest sites in Israel. It was built in the fifth century. Modern restoration revealed and repaired intricate mosaic floors of the church.

Photo courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism

Also in Tabha is the Church of St. Peter’s Primacy, where Jesus is said to have appeared to his disciples after the resurrection.

Tabgha was subjected to a previous attack in April 2014 in which church officials said a group of religious Jewish teenagers had damaged crosses and attacked clergy.

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."

In April, vandals smashed gravestones at a Maronite Christian cemetery near Israel's northern border with Lebanon.

That incident prompted Rivlin to meet church leaders and pledge a crackdown on religiously inspired hate crime.

Comments

(5)

No doubt a large quantity of whitewash will be used shortly.

Well welcome back Mr Farmer, never slow in coming forward in having a veiled anti semetic dig. I note you have been very quiet on recent UN announcements commenting positivly on Israel's retaliation in Gaza as being "controlled". I wonder if your real name is Farouk or similar :)

stephen spencer - 'UN announcements commenting positivly on Israel's retaliation in Gaza as being "controlled".' ---- link please. p.s.Israeli missiles are 'controlled'.

"The respect and dignity that we once cry for and was trampled by the hateful, it is now being trampled by the feet of our own children".

Rafael Salazar - "The respect and dignity that we once cry for and was trampled by the hateful, it is now being trampled by the feet of our own children". ----- They're not set a good example by their state.

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