Thousands of Israeli Christians went to the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha, Israel, on June 21 to register their protest of the burning of the Christian place of worship days earlier. Israeli police designated  as an act of arson the fire that consumed a storage room at the historic church, where Christians believe that Jesus Christ miraculously multiplied loaves and fishes to feed a multitude. Approximately 3,000 people showed up for an afternoon protest. Some carried crosses and Vatican banners. Simultaneously, about 100 young people blocked an adjacent road.
 
 
The former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah and Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo celebrated a special Mass inside the church “in protest against the deliberate attack.”  Catholic Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton UK issued an unusually strong condemnation of the attack, blaming “Jewish zealots” while demanding the Israeli authorities act against religious bigotry. Jewish leaders, including the dean of Sephardic rabbis, immediately condemned the attack as being contrary to Jewish values. In addition, Richard Verber of the Board of Deputies of British Jews condemned “the heinous arson attack,” saying,  “Such hatred and disrespect of faith should have no place in Israel, the holy land to the three Abrahamic faiths. The board welcomes the Israeli government’s pledge to apprehend the perpetrators and they should meet the full force of the law.”
(Ancient mosaic at the altar)
 
Abbot Gregory Collins, who heads the Benedictine in Israel, called on Christians to denounce the act of violence. He said,  "A few nights ago we suffered a severe attack here," adding, "A fire that endangered human lives. All residents of the area – Christians, Druze, Muslims, and Jews should protest against this deed. But we are Christian and must react like Christians.” He also said, "We are in the place where Christ performed his miracles, and we the monks have hosted invalids here for years. We will replace the terrible fire with the fire of God's love and forgiveness."
 
Last week, a fire brigade responded to a call and managed to stop the fire just yards away from the nave of the church, which has a flammable wooden roof. They found graffiti scrawled on the limestone walls of the church that accused Christians of worshipping idols. Following the attack, 16 people (largely teenagers) from nearby Jewish settlements who were camping in the area were questioned for six hours before being released by police. “There is an ongoing investigation. We’re still searching for suspects,” said Israel police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
 
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the General Security Service of Israel to investigate the attack on the church. However, Israeli police succeeded in obtaining a court order on June 22 that bans the publication of investigation details until at least July 21. The order also bans the publication of any details that could lead to the identification of any of the suspects.
 
The official Vatican news service described the attack on the church as “yet another episode in the long series of desecrations and acts of intimidation committed by groups of extremist Jewish settlers to the detriment of monasteries, churches and Christian cemeteries since February 2012”. The report also referred to attacks on mosques by “militant extremist groups close to the settler movement.” Since 2011, 17 similar crimes have been committed inside the so-called Green Line in Jerusalem. The perpetrators of the 17 crimes, which targeted mosques and churches, have not been prosecuted.
 
(Courtyard at the Church of the Multiplication)
 
According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, 2014 saw a 200 per cent increase in such crimes attributed to far right Jewish groups.  In recent years, dozens of Christian sites have come under attack, including Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem’s Old City, a Trappist monastery in Latroun, and the Convent of St. Francis on Mount Zion. A surge of anti-Christian graffiti – such as “Death to Christians,” “We will crucify you,” and “Jesus is a monkey,” preceded Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land last year.

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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