The Church of Loaves and Fishes: Out of the fire

Israel’s Christian leaders – and average citizens – struggle to make sense of the extremist attack on the Galilee’s famed pilgrimage site, and what it means for the country as a whole.

Abbot Gregory Collins, head of the Order of St. Benedict in Israel, stands amid the damage. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Abbot Gregory Collins, head of the Order of St. Benedict in Israel, stands amid the damage.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Father Jonas will never forget June 18, 2015 – the day his church was set ablaze in a suspected “price-tag” attack.
At 3:10 a.m., a loud noise woke him.
“At first, I thought a water pipe had burst,” he tells me as we stand on the shores of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), next to the entrance of the Church of Loaves and Fishes, near Kfar Nahum, called Capernaum in the New Testament. The site is where Christians believe Jesus performed the Miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes.
“I can still hear the sound echoing in my head,” he continues. “I went outside and saw huge flames reaching up toward the sky. This time of year, everything is so dry – all you need is one match and everything catches fire. I immediately turned on our fire hose and called the fire department. Four fire trucks arrived, plus a police patrol car.”
Two people suffered from smoke inhalation as a result of the attack.
“Since that night, I’ve barely slept,” he says. “But things must go back to normal – we have a lot of work to do and people to help.”
The church, which sits just above Tabgha, is one of the most popular Christian tourist sites in the country; on a good day, it sees 5,000 visitors.
There’s something magical about the elegant structure that sits above the calm Sea of Galilee, which makes this arson attack and the resulting damage all the more surreal.
Abbot Gregory Collins, head of the Order of St. Benedict in Israel, agrees to open the church for a few minutes so we can glimpse the damage that suspected Jewish extremists wrought, which includes anti-Christian graffiti and is estimated to be in the millions of shekels. Police also came by during the day to continue their investigation, Collins says, and many other people visited out of curiosity or to express their support and horror at the attack.
The hate crime also drew round condemnation from Israeli leaders on all sides of the political spectrum.
“I know a lot about extremism,” declares Collins. “I’m from Belfast in Northern Ireland. But I also know that most of the people living here in Israel are not like that, and this behavior is not representative of most Israelis. I’ve received thousands of messages of goodwill from Jews, Christians and Muslims around the globe. I hope this will be the last such incident – because this wasn’t just an attack on religion, it was an attack on Israel’s democracy.”
Collins currently leads the community at the Kinneret church, but his permanent location is the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem’s Old City. He came to Israel four years ago, and this is the second fire he’s experienced; last May, someone set the church in Jerusalem aflame, and two people suffered smoke inhalation.
This new act of vandalism was just one in a series of incidents that have occurred in mosques, churches and monasteries over the last few years – and have yet to be solved. Some believe it was a “price tag” attack by Jewish extremists in retaliation for attacks on Jews.
“My first reaction when I was woken up in the morning was, ‘What? Again?’” Collins recounts. “I don’t even care about the fact that they didn’t find the culprits. The police are doing the best they can to find the people who are responsible for this terrible act, and when they do, the culprits will be brought to justice. Our goal now is to educate people and to improve Israeli society.”
As he leads me through the burned church, I see books in ashes on the floor and plastic chairs that have melted; the stench is unbearable, and it is hard to breathe. The church itself was fortunately not damaged, but the surrounding area was.
Outside, we meet Prof. Joseph Agassi, a philosopher and left-wing political activist who has come to offer his support.
At the time of my visit the building is still not open to the public, and so Agassi, 88, stands waiting outside in the scorching sun.
“We are on the brink of destruction – we need to do something,” he insists.
“I fear there will be a civil war and bloodshed. Relations have completely broken down. There have been 17 unsolved incidents involving damage of religious institutions, because the government identifies with these thugs.”
The church is located on the northwest corner of the Kinneret and belongs to the German Association of the Holy Land, which was established in 1850. According to Christian lore, a miracle took place on this spot when Jesus fed 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish.
Bernard Mosinghoff, the German Association’s representative in Israel, has also paid a visit to the church. Still in shock from the attack, he relates, “We’re trying to get back to a normal routine and raise funds to repair the church, which will be expensive and take time. This is an open wound, since the church is one of the most important sites for Christianity. Thank goodness the church itself was not damaged and no one was hurt. This time, the line has been crossed.”
Most people, regardless of religion, have condemned the attack. In one instance, a group of rabbis from Germany had just visited the church the morning of the blaze in an effort to promote interreligious dialogue, and after hearing about the attack, they immediately changed their schedule so they could come back for another visit, in a show of solidarity.
“As a German Jew, I would like to express my horror that a church in Israel was set afire, especially considering what we suffered just 70 years ago,” one of the rabbis proclaimed.
Leaders of the Israel Tour Guide Association have also arrived on the scene to display solidarity with the Christian community.
“This is a huge blow for our image,” asserts Moshe Hanzel, who has been a tour guide for over 21 years. “When incidents like this take place, Israel comes across looking like a violent country, and then tourists choose not to come here. Whoever carried out this attack was not thinking ahead.”
Another supporter is Mark from Poland, who is on a four-month-long bicycle trip; he stands at the gate and says a silent prayer. And Khalil Khoury is furious on seeing that the doors are shut; he has come all the way from Nazareth to pray and to show that nothing will break him.
Abbot Gregory Collins stands in front of anti-Christian graffiti.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“Even if it had been a synagogue that had been attacked, I still would have come to show my support,” he declares.
“Whoever carried out this attack thinks he did it in the name of religion, but it has nothing to do with religion. It was an act of madness,” Collins observes sadly as we prepare to leave. “I still don’t understand why anyone would want to burn down such a beautiful place.
It’s a place of prayer and giving. Handicapped children of all religions come here, longing for salvation; everyone is welcome here. So why would someone want to do such a horrible thing?” He stresses that “in comparison with other places in the Middle East, Israel is a very open country that respects people of all faiths, and we know enough not to take this for granted.”
Still, he says, “there is always room for improvement, and we are optimistic.
I grew up in Ireland, where a great deal of blood was spilled between opposing groups, and I am happy to see that people here are striving for peace in the region. Anything can happen if you just believe.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
[The church has now reopened to visitors.]