One or more arsonists burned the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish in Tabgha, Israel, the site of an ancient church that marks the traditional location of the miracle performed by Jesus in Galilee. The main structure of the building only dates to the 1980s, but the altar and the floor mosaics go all the way back to the 5th century. The attack on the church appears to be a religiously motivated hate crime, as the church’s representative remarks in this video from AFP:
An arson attack gutted part of the church at the site where Christians believe Jesus performed a miracle by feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, Israeli officials said Thursday.
A verse from a Hebrew prayer denouncing the worship of “false gods” was spraypainted in red on a wall at the church on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
“Extensive damage was caused to the church both inside and out,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
A spokesman for the fire brigade said a preliminary investigation showed the blaze broke out in several places inside the church, evidence that it was started deliberately.
NBC has more video from the aftermath of the arson:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded action against the perpetrators of this crime, while church officials question whether law enforcement sees this as a priority:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed officials from the Shin Bet security service to open a probe Thursday into the torching of a church in northern Israel, as politicians from across the spectrum and church figures spoke out against the crime. …
Netanyahu told Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen to conduct an accelerated investigation into the attack, which was suspected to be the latest in a series of so-called “price tag” attacks by Jewish extremists.
“The shocking arson of the church is an attack on all of us,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “Israel’s freedom of religion is a cornerstone of our values and it is anchored in the law. We will mete out justice to those responsible for this atrocious act. We have no room for hatred and intolerance in our society.”
President Reuven Rivlin also condemned the arson in a conversation with Father Gregory Collins, head of the Order of Saint Benedict in Israel.
“I was shocked and saddened to learn this morning of the fire at the Church at Tabgha,” Rivlin told Gregory, “Such terrible desecration of an ancient and holy place of prayer, is 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.”
According to the Associated Press report, this is not the first attack on the church in recent times. A year ago, the outdoor prayer area got attacked — and so did pilgrims:
Last year, a group of mostly Jewish youth attacked the Church of the Multiplication’s outdoor prayer area along the Sea of Galilee, pelting worshippers with stones, destroying a cross and throwing benches into the lake, Karl said.
Nahum Weisfish, a rabbi from Jerusalem, went to the church with an interfaith delegation to express sympathy and condemn the attack.
He said the site might have been targeted because it housed a synagogue some 2,000 years ago. “But either way it is forbidden for this to be done like this. We came to condemn this,” he said.
This is hardly the worst thing to happen in a church in the past twenty-four hours, of course, nor is it meant to offer that comparison. It’s very gratifying to see Israeli officials quickly condemn this attack on a site with such historical resonance for Christians, and to escalate the priority of investigating the crime. It doesn’t take very many nuts to do real damage, and fortunately no one was hurt or killed in this hate-filled attack.
This church has special meaning for me, as it was one of the many sites we visited on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We saw absolutely no hostility from people in Galilee to those visiting the many pilgrimage sites in the area. In fact, our experience was just the opposite — warm, friendly hospitality in both Israel and the West Bank from everyone, despite the obvious tensions between the communities who live in the region. (Also, note that Galilee is not particularly close to the West Bank.)
Fortunately, the ancient mosaic floor was apparently undamaged in the fire. I did take a few pictures of this church while we were there, but in retrospect I wish I had taken more. I’ll share the best of those with Hot Air readers to give a sense of the value of this active place of worship.
This detail of the church floor is interesting for its representation of grain measures on the right side.
This is to the left of the altar, where the mosaic from the ancient church is in better condition.
This was much more modern, of course, but it made for a beautiful picture nonetheless.
News reports state that the church should be accessible to pilgrims again in the next few days. Hopefully those who come to ponder on faith and draw inspiration from these sites will experience the same hospitality we received — and the Israeli government will shortly find those responsible and hold them accountable for their acts.