Police said on Thursday they had detained 16 suspects in connection with the torching of the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee, which was set ablaze early that morning. The group was released a few hours later.
Many of those detained were said to be minors, all from Jewish settlements in the Samaria region in the northern West Bank, including 10 from Yitzhar, which is known as a bastion of extremists. The group had apparently been spending time in the nearby Ein Hokuk spring.
“In an area near the church, 16 youths were detained for investigation in order to check their involvement in the incident before dawn,” police spokeswoman Luba Samri said in a statement, referring to the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha in northern Israel.
“All 16… were released, with no conditions attached, after being interviewed and giving statements,” she added in a subsequent statement.
Firefighting crews successfully doused the blaze 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.
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.
“A hate crime like this is unbelievable and unacceptable,” he said. “I apologize personally and on behalf of the state for this extremist attack.”
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.
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.
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. It is a blow to the principles of tolerance between religions and a blow to the most essential values of Israel, and we will show no patience for these kinds of acts.”
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.
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.
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.