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.
Police briefly arrested 16 people earlier Thursday after arson was discovered at the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee. The group was released a few hours later.
Anti-Christian graffiti in Hebrew was also discovered at the site.
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.”
Rivlin added that every effort would be made “to bring those responsible to justice.”
Firefighting crews successfully doused the blaze Thursday morning and two people who were in the building suffered minor smoke inhalation. 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.
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 Jewish liturgy.
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.
Catholic Church officials accused the government of not doing enough to stop crimes of this type, and said a report on the arson had been sent to the Vatican, Israeli news outlet Haaretz reported.
Bishop William Shomali, Patriarchal Vicar of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, expressed hopes the perpetrators would be caught.
“It is a terrible thing, really terrible, that hurts us all,” he told the Vatican news agency.
A news report from the Vatican linked the arson to previous attacks by Jewish extremists from the settler movement on Christian and Muslim sites. It added that the church had been targeted by rock-throwing teenagers in April last year.
Right-wing Jewish extremists have in the past carried out numerous arson and graffiti attacks against Christian sites, 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.
Israeli officials have vowed to crack down on the phenomenon, though critics accuse security forces of dragging their feet on prosecuting Jewish suspects.
A number of Israeli lawmakers took to Facebook to denounce the attack.
“Whoever lights fire to a church is not only an idiot who lacks respect for religion — he is also a terrorist who is severely damaging the State of Israel. Law enforcement authorities should act with abundant severity toward whoever is found guilty,” wrote MK Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beytenu party.
Culture Minister Miri Regev also strongly condemned the desecration of the church on her Facebook page and said she was confident the police force would bring the criminals to justice. MK Shelly Yachimovich said the apprehension of the arsonists must be the Israel Police’s “highest priority.”
Interior Minister Silvan Shalom earlier Thursday voiced his outrage at the attack in a phone call to the church leader, Father Matthias Karl, and promised that his ministry would do all it could to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan also denounced the incident.
“This is a cowardly and vile act that I vigorously condemn,” he said. “We will not allow anyone to shake the coexistence between religions and ethnic groups in Israel.”
MK Zouheir Bahloul (Zionist Union) appealed for swift action to prevent the incident from causing tensions between religious groups in Israel.
“The torching of the church is shocking and directly threatens the democratic nature of Israel,” he said.
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.