Netanyahu orders probe into ‘outrageous arson attack’ on Galilee church

"Idol worshippers will have their heads cut off," spray-painted on nearby wall; Police question and release 16 yeshiva students in area, launch joint investigation with Shin Bet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday called for a swift investigation into what police are deeming a religiously motivated arson attack on a Sea of Galilee church. The attack before dawn on Thursday has drawn widespread condemnation both within Israel and abroad.
Speaking with Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yoram Cohen, the premier called for a full and swift investigation into what he described as an “outrageous arson attack” that constituted “an attack on all of us.”
“Freedom of worship in Israel is one of our core values and is guaranteed under the law.
Suspected arson on Church of the Multiplication in the Galilee
We will bring to justice those responsible for this crime. Hate and intolerance have no place in our society,” he said.
A room in the compound of the limestone Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes – on the site where Christians believe Jesus performed a miracle by feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish – was gutted by a fire set early Thursday morning.
Firefighters were alerted of a blaze surrounding a large study room in the church complex at approximately 3 a.m., and arrived at the scene within minutes, the Fire and Rescue Services said.
“The fire was set outside of a study in the compound, but caused severe damage to it,” said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. “It took firefighters an hour to put it out, and the damage was so bad that the roof of the study collapsed.”
After hateful graffiti was found spray-painted in Hebrew on a nearby wall and a forensics analysis was conducted, police concluded that it was a hate crime, Rosenfeld said.
“We confirmed that the blaze was caused deliberately due to the fact that it was started simultaneously in different areas, and that it happened during the early hours of the morning,” he said. “But the most significant evidence was graffiti found on an outside wall in Hebrew stating, ‘idol worshipers will be eliminated,’ which led us to believe it was deliberate.”
After securing the area, police launched an intensive joint investigation with the Shin Bet throughout the morning, which led to the detention of 16 yeshiva students who were visiting the area a few miles away, Rosenfeld said.
“There was a group of teenage yeshiva students that stayed overnight in the area and all 16 were questioned to see if any of them were involved,” he said.
However, after several hours of questioning, all 16 boys were released. No arrests had been made as of Thursday night.
“We are continuing to search for the suspects who targeted the church and were involved in the horrific incident near the Sea of Galilee,” Rosenfeld said.
Meanwhile, a number of high-ranking officials, as well as many Knesset members, condemned the incident.
The arson constitutes a “hate crime of the worst kind and is contrary to the basic values of the State of Israel,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog said.
“The torching of the church is a cowardly and despicable act, which contradicts Israel’s basic values,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said.
Erdan added that he had spoken with the commander of the northern police district and “instructed him to give priority to the investigation of the incident in order to reach the perpetrators quickly and bring them to justice.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely issued a statement condemning the act “in the strongest terms. The State of Israel safeguards the freedom of worship of all faiths and completely rejects any and all attempts to harm it.”
Speaking with Christian leaders Thursday, President Reuven Rivlin called the fire 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.”
“Israel, as a state and a society, is obligated to protect and preserve the holy sites for all faiths. I can assure you that the relevant authorities will investigate this crime and make every effort to bring those responsible to justice. It is my belief that few people do more damage to Israel than those who carry out such acts,” he said.
“Voices are already rising, as the political sphere of the Christian community seeks an urgent and speedy investigation to strongly condemn the perpetrators of this vicious and disgraceful madness,” the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said in a statement, in which it recalled that the church had been vandalized by a group of teens last year.
“The losses are estimated at several million shekels. Even worse is that an elderly Benedictine monk and a young volunteer who were in the church were severely injured and transported to the hospital for toxic smoke inhalation,” the group said.
Father Gabriel Nadaf of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and a prominent advocate for Christian service in the IDF, said that this act of “blasphemy” served to “blacken the face of the State of Israel and Israeli society and harmed efforts to promote coexistence.”
Wadia Abu Nasser, a senior adviser to the Catholic Church in Israel, condemned the hate crime and suggested it would deter Christian pilgrims from visiting, causing economic damage as well.
“This incident simply hurts and angers us. Israeli security authorities and the education establishment must take action,” he said. “The damage is in the millions.”
The economic damage caused by the suspected arson did not compare to the mental anguish it caused, he said.
“There have been dozens of attacks against holy places in Israel. This is more than just one person. There is hatred of the other here and a lack of respect,” he added.
Dozens of arrests have been made in such cases in the past, but there have been few indictments and convictions, with police and prosecutors acknowledging that the young age of many of the suspected perpetrators has led courts to show leniency.
MK Miki Rosenthal (Zionist Union) agreed, stating that “It is time for the Israel Police and the Shin Bet to begin work in earnest to locate the assailants” and that cases of attacks against dozens of places of worship in recent years have not been resolved satisfactorily.
MKs from both right- and left-wing parties visited the site Thursday, as did a delegation of the Conference of European Rabbis, which likewise stated that “continuous attacks against houses of worship in the State of Israel undermine the very foundation the Jewish state was built on.”
The CER sent a representative, Rabbi Avichai Apel of Dortmund, Germany, to visit the church.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, condemned the arson, calling it “a product of xenophobia which increasingly dominates our society.”
He called on “the government and the police to follow a ‘zero tolarance’ policy against the perpetrators and instigators alike,” and said that “rabbis must break their silence and denounce such anti-Jewish phenomena.”
The attack was not an isolated incident, but a part of a larger pattern of so-called “price tag” attacks, MK Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, said, blaming it on the “incitement voiced because of the government, which produces a racist atmosphere.”
Representatives of B’nai B’rith have called on the government to institute zero-tolerance policies for hate crimes.
In a letter to Netanyahu and Erdan, B’nai B’rith World Center chairman Dr. Haim V. Katz and director Alan Schneider asked for “legislative amendments that would impose long mandatory sentences for all convicted perpetrators.”
Katz plans on personally conveying his organization’s indignation during a meeting with Pope Francis in Rome next week, the organization said.
The attack has also drawn diplomatic ire, with German Ambassador Andreas Michaelis, who went to the site of the incident, saying he was shocked by the attack.
“I strongly condemn the attack and any types of violence against representatives of religious institutions or the institutions themselves.
It is necessary to ensure that these institutions will remain protected in Israel, as well as in Germany and Europe. Incidents such as these must not be allowed to be repeated,” he said.
British Ambassador Matthew Gould issued a statement saying, “This was a disgusting act of disrespect at one of Christianity’s holiest sites. The British government welcomes the determination of the Israeli authorities to bring those responsible to justice.”
Jerusalem Post staff and Reuters contributed to this report.