TABGHA, Israel (AP) — A fire ripped through one of the most famous Catholic churches in the Holy Land on Thursday, damaging the roof and burning prayer books in what authorities believe is an attack by Jewish extremists.
The fire broke out at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish in the middle of the night, causing extensive damage to the inside and outside of the building, said Israel police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
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 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. It is one of the most popular stops for Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.
Father Gregory Collins, head of the Order of Saint Benedict in Israel, which maintains the site, said more than 5,000 people visit the church daily. He said the church would be closed for the next three days due to the fire damage.
"It's deplorable, absolutely deplorable. I consider such an attack to be not just an attack on a religious site, on a sanctuary, but also on one of the most visited places in Israel," Collins said. "It is also an attack on freedom of speech, democracy and the right to live here."
Father Matthias Karl, a German monk at the church, said a souvenir shop, an office for pilgrims and a meeting room were badly damaged, and bibles and prayer books were destroyed.
"It's totally destroyed. The fire was very active," he said.
A monk and a church volunteer were hospitalized from smoke inhalation, but the prayer area of the church was unaffected by the fire, he said.
A passage from a Jewish prayer, calling for the elimination of idol worship, was found scrawled in red spray paint on a wall outside the church.
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."
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said authorities would make every effort to apprehend those responsible.
"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," Rivlin said.
Police said they initially arrested 16 youths, all religious Jewish seminary students from West Bank settlements, but released them shortly thereafter. 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. Such attacks have been widely condemned across the political spectrum in Israel, though few arrests have been made.
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.