A fire broke out at the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee, early Thursday in what police suspect was an arson attack.
Firefighting crews successfully doused the blaze and two people who were in the building suffered minor smoke inhalation.
In an entrance corridor of the building, which is believed by Christians to be the site of Jesus’s miracle of multiplying two fish and five loaves to feed 5,000 people, Hebrew graffiti was found, reading, “the false gods will be eliminated” — a quote from the Aleinu prayer.
No significant damage was inflicted to the church itself, as the fire raged mainly on the roof. Some damage was caused to a book storage room, offices, and an event hall.
The church, which is run by the Catholic Benedictine Order, is best known for its fifth-century mosaics, including one depicting two fish flanking a basket of loaves.
Right-wing Jewish extremists have in the past carried out numerous arson and graffiti attacks against Christian sites, as as well as against Arab property in the West Bank and Jerusalem under the “price tag” slogan.
The term “price tag” is used by Jewish extremists to describe vandalism or attacks typically carried out against non-Jews or their property, ostensibly as retribution for Palestinian attacks or Israeli government actions deemed contrary to settler interests.
Lt. (res.) Shadi Halul, who heads the Christian IDF Officers Forum, told Army Radio Thursday that those responsible for the fire were mistaken if they thought such actions benefit their cause.
“If in this case Jewish zealots are fingered, then, first of all, they clearly don’t represent all the Jews. They’re criminals who should be in prison and not walking around freely.
“If they think this is how they can help themselves and strengthen their own beliefs then I just want to say it only damages their beliefs and damages their justice, and the justification for their being here in this land.”
Halul added that that for the many tourists who visit the site every year, such an incident presents exactly the opposite of the image of coexistence and democracy that Israel wants to project to the world.
Chief Superintendent Ran Levi of the Tiberias Police told Army Radio that police were alerted to the incident at 4.00 a.m. on Thursday morning.
There were 12 volunteers in the building at the time, and they attmepted to contain the flames, Levi said. Two of them were hospitalized after suffering from smoke inhalation and then later released.
As for suspects, Levi said it was too early to make any suggestions. “We are really at the beginning of the process and we still don’t have any leads,” he said.
Christian churches have been targeted in suspected extremist Jewish attacks several times in recent years.
In May 2014, the Romanian Orthodox Church on Hahoma Hashlishit Street in Jerusalem was defaced in a suspected hate attack.
That incident saw the words “price tag,” “Jesus is garbage” and “King David for the Jews,” spray-painted on the site’s walls.
Two weeks earlier, ahead of a visit to the country by Pope Francis, suspected Jewish extremists daubed hate graffiti on Vatican-owned offices in Jerusalem.
The Hebrew-language graffiti, reading “Death to Arabs and Christians and those who hate Israel,” was sprayed on the walls of the offices of the Assembly of Bishops at the Notre Dame center, a complex just outside the Old City, the Roman Catholic Church said.
Last July, two suspects were arrested on suspicion of a 2012 incident in which vandals torched the door of a Trappist monastery in Latrun, some 10 kilometers (six miles) from Deir Rafat. They also scrawled “Jesus is a monkey” on a nearby wall, shocking the religious and political establishment.
Israeli officials have termed the attacks “terrorism” and vowed to fight the phenomenon, but have so far made few arrests.