Thousands of demonstrators gathered at the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha in northern Israel on Sunday to protest an arson attack on the holy site last week.
The church was set on fire early Thursday morning, and anti-Christian graffiti in Hebrew was discovered on its walls. The suspected hate crime drew fierce condemnation from Israeli leaders from both sides of the aisle, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying he instructed the Shin Bet security agency to swiftly apprehend the perpetrators. No suspects have been arrested.
Throngs of Israelis, most of them Christians, arrived on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee on Sunday to show support for the church in an appeal for coexistence and for a more forceful Israeli crackdown on vandals. The demonstrators gathered around 4 p.m., with many waving the yellow and white Vatican flag and briefly holding up traffic.
Route 87 was closed off by police during the event, and some 100 mostly young demonstrators blocked a road near the church.
“This despicable act is trying to damage the fabric of society in the Galilee,” said Daria Arbel, one of the demonstrators and a member of the interfaith organization Marching Together to a Shared Future. “We live here together, people of all religions, and we won’t let anyone damage this shared life we have here.”
Shadi Halul, the chairman of the Aramaic Christian Association in Israel, also condemned the “abominable act, just like any damage to a Jewish holy place would be.”
“We have a shared past and a shared future as well. Those that did this do not represent the Jews and actually hurt the Jews. They undermine the Jews’ right to exist here and achieve the opposite result because haters of Israel take advantage of this and use it against the Jews,” Halul said, according to Walla.
Father Gregory Collins, the head of the Order of Saint Benedict in Israel, who presides over the church, told the demonstrators: “The attack on the church is an attack on all those who believe in a civilization of love and coexistence.”
Firefighting crews 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, Haaretz reported.
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.
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.