Suspected arson of Church of Loaves and Fish hints at a deeper problem

"And false idols will be smashed" - the graffiti found near the Church of the Multiplication. (Credit: Israel Fire and Rescue Services)

A fire at the historic Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee, was a hate crime, according to police.

Haaretz reported that sixteen yeshiva students, reportedly West Bank settlers, were arrested (and subsequently released without charge).

Fire ravaged the church’s roof, reception, storeroom and the nuns’ office. Graffiti, reading “False idols will be smashed” in Hebrew, was found on an outer wall.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the arson and ordered Israel’s Shin Bet security service to conduct an ‘acclerated’ investigation. The Joint Arab List called for right-wing extremists to be listed as terrorists and the dismissal of Israel’s police chief, Yohanan Danino.

Others directed their anger towards a broader policy failure. Since 2011, 17 Muslim and Christian places of worship suffered arson attacks in Israel, with the individuals responsibile evading criminal justice.

The Rabbis for Human Rights group estimate that 43 hate crime attacks have taken place against churches, mosques and monasteries in Israel and the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2009.

Father Matthias told the Associated Press that a group of mostly Jewish youth attacked the Church of the Multiplication’s outdoor prayer area, pelting worshippers with stones, throwing benches into the lake, and burning a cross in 2014.

The Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef stated, “The deviant behavior of church arsonists in the north must be condemned absolutely, and they should be punished severely”.

Other notable incidents: 

A suspected mosque arson in the occupied West Bank and disparaging graffiti in Hebrew hints that a far-right Israeli group is responsible.

Mayor No’man Hamdan suggested the Hebrew slogans dubbed on the mosque included “Revenge for the Land of Zion” and “Price Tag,” a phrase synonymous with the far-right. The fire caused structural damage but no individuals were hurt in the overnight attack in the Al-Jaba’ah village near Bethlehem.

Robert Serry, UN Special Coordinator to the Middle East Peace Process, condemned the arson “I am concerned by this and all other religiously-motivated attacks and provocations by any party, which may further inflame an already volatile environment.

A timely and thorough investigation, as well as bringing the perpetrators to justice, is critical. Extremists on both sides must not be allowed to turn this conflict into a religious one,” he said.

According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, the arson coincided with the anniversary of Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, where 29 Muslim worshipers were murdered by Baruch Goldstein.

Suspected “price tag” attacks do not exist in a vacuum. In early 2014, a mosque in the northern city of Umm al-Fahm had its front door set alight and the racist slogan “Arabs out” spray painted upon one of its walls. At the time, local media reported it was the fourth such incident in a month.

In October 2014, a suspected mosque arson in Aqraba, a village east of Nablus, in the occupied West Bank, drew strong condemnation from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin who wanted to incident “treated as terrorism”. Rivlin ordered a crackdown on “price tag” groups who are responsible for a range of attacks on Israeli Arab, Palestinian, and church property within the West Bank and Israel since 2008.

The graffiti read: “price tag” and “Tapuah is Kahane,” the latter references the Kfar Tapuah settlement and to Meir Kahane who founded the Jewish Defence League before his death in 1990.

A month later, at a time of heightened tensions, a mosque and synagogue became targets for hate, according to residents and police. But an Israeli police investigation in December suggested extremists were not responsible for the fire at the mosque in the village of Mughayer, near Ramallah. Individuals targeted a synagogue with a petrol bomb in Shfaram, northern Israel (a predominantly Muslim and Christian Arab town) that caused light damage.

‘Price tag’ groups allegedly also targeted Jewish institutions last year. When Pope Francis visited the region, swastikas inside Jewish stars were found outside Jerusalem’s Conservative Moreshet Yisrael synagogue.

A George Romanian Orthodox Church became a target for ‘Price tag’ gangs in May 2014, vandals defaced the church with the slogan “Price tag, King David is for the Jews, Jesus is garbage.”

Just last week, on February 19, an arson attack upon Greek Orthodox seminary near Jerusalem’s Old City and anti-Christian graffiti in Hebrew hints at a hate crime. Similarly to the mosque arson in the Al-Jaba’ah village, the slogans included “Zion will be redeemed” and an insult against Jesus and his mother Mary.