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Arson Suspected in Israel Church Fire

Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Hebrew spray-painted on walls decries worship of idols

Investigators in Israel suspect arson as a possible cause of a devestating fire at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

The overnight fire Thursday caused considerable damage to the property. An elderly Benedictine monk and a young volunteer who were in the Church were taken to a hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said investigators were at the site and Hebrew graffiti had been found, which led police and fire service investigators to suspect that the fire had been set deliberately, the Jerusalem Post reported. 

Based on a video on the website of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem the fire damaged much of the cloister located in front of the church.

A Hebrew phrase spray-painted on the walls was drawn from a prayer of praise recited three times a day by observant Jews, “Aleinou LeShabeah,” a request for God to destroy idols and pagans.

The church had been vandalized before, in April 2014, when the cross and an altar were the target of a barrage of stones and spitting by a gang of young people, the Latin Patriarchate report said.

The modern building is built on the remains of a fifth-century Byzantine church and features a Byzantine mosaic floor that was not harmed, the Associated Press reported. The church marks the traditional spot of Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fish, and is located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.

AP said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the incident and ordered the head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency to "to conduct a full and speedy investigation."

"This morning’s outrageous arson attack on a church is an attack on us all. In Israel freedom of worship is one of our core values and is guaranteed under the law," Netanyahu said. "Those responsible for this despicable crime will face the full force of the law. Hate and intolerance have no place in our society."

The wire service also reported that 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.

Police said they initially arrested 16 youths, all religious Jewish seminary students from West Bank settlements, but released them shortly thereafter, according to AP. Their lawyer, Itamar Ben Gvir, told Israeli Army Radio the police had no evidence against the youths and that they were under suspicion simply for looking like young settlers.

In recent years, mosques and churches have been targeted by vandals in similar attacks. They are often attributed to extremist Jews from West Bank settlements, said the wire service.

"This new event does not promote peace among peoples of all religions," said a statement on the Patriarchate site. "Voices are already rising, as the political sphere of the Christian community seek an urgent and speedy investigation to strongly condemn the perpetrators of this vicious and disgraceful madness."

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