Two Injured in Arson Attack on Historic Church in Galilee, Israel

Monk, volunteer recovering from smoke, fumes.

Damage at Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee. (Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

Damage at Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee. (Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (Morning Star News) – An elderly monk is recovering from smoke and toxic fumes he inhaled in an arson attack on a Galilee church yesterday as Israeli police investigate the blaze that caused more that $1 million in damages.

Before dawn on Thursday (June 18) someone set fire to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, a Roman Catholic church run by Benedictine monks on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Tabgha village.

Officials have not released the name of the monk, who according to local media reports is 80 years old. Both the monk and a German volunteer at the church required hospitalization. Both suffered from smoke inhalation, with the monk’s injuries appearing to be more serious.

No arrests have been in connection with the fire, but 16 Jewish “youths” were held, questioned then released, said police spokeswoman Luba Samri in press statements.

“In an area near the church, 16 youths were detained for investigation in order to check their involvement in the incident before dawn,” Samri said. “All 16 … were released with no conditions attached, after being interviewed and giving statements.”

According to officials from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the damage was substantial. The worship hall sustained minor damage, but the fire gutted one of the rooms in the complex, damaged a book storage room along with the books inside and caused significant damage to offices and an event hall.

Grafitti in red paint on an inside wall of one of the buildings read, “The false gods will be eliminated,” apparently a reference to a Jewish liturgical text, though some in Israel translated the marking as “idol worshippers” will be eliminated.

The church building was constructed in the 1980s on the site of fourth- and fifth- century churches that commemorated the spot where the New Testament records that Jesus fed 5,000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. Some Christians believe the miracle happened at the church site.

The attack is similar to numerous other arson and vandalism attacks against churches, Christian cemeteries and, more often, other Christian-owned property. Known as “price tag” attacks for the costs they bring to victims, they are carried out by Jewish extremists to punish Christians for their faith, Palestinians for their nationality, or both.

Price tag attacks are now common throughout Israel and the Palestinian Territories, with little done to prosecute the perpetrators.

This is the second time the church has been attacked. On April 27, 2014, young extremist Jews desecrated crosses and an altar at the site.

On May 26, 2014, at the Benedictine Dormition Abbey close to the Upper Room in Jerusalem, someone started a fire during a service officiated by Pope Francis in an adjacent building. The Benedictines of Mount Zion also are constant victims of contempt and violence where they live and work. Monks there see getting spit on and yelled at by yeshiva students and other Orthodox Jews almost as a rite of passage.

In a statement released this morning, The Catholic Bishops of the Holy Land demanded an “immediate investigation and the perpetrators of this acts of vandalism be brought to justice.”

“Such criminal acts seriously undermine the coexistence of religious communities in the country. Jews, Christians and Muslims together must fight against such manifestations of violence and extremism,” the statement read. “Our society needs our testimony of respect for the dignity of every man and woman, respect for their faith, and safeguard the sanctity of all holy places and their free access to believers.”

A lay worker for the Latin Patriarchate of Jersusalem who requested anonymity said the attack has left him feeling apprehensive.

“I feel insecure now here in Israel in my own shrines where I go to pray, and very sad, because Christians here are a constructive community,” he said. “I don’t know why they do this.”

Israeli officials at several levels condemned the attack, eager to send the message that Israel is safe for tourism and that sectarian violence will not be tolerated. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a swift investigation into what he called an “outrageous arson attack” that amounted to “an attack on all of us.”

“Freedom of worship in Israel is one of our core values and is guaranteed under the law,” he said. “We will bring to justice those responsible for this crime. Hate and intolerance have no place in our society.”

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