Lawmakers from the center-left Zionist Union party were visiting the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee, Friday afternoon, after the holy site was burned and graffitied in an apparent hate crime.
The group of lawmakers, including Hatnua party chief Tzipi Livni and Labor’s Zouheir Bahloul, were meeting with the local Christian community and touring the burned church.
The attack on the site, 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, was discovered Thursday, drawing criticism from across the political spectrum and from church leaders.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed officials from the Shin Bet security service to open a probe Thursday into the attack. Police briefly arrested 16 people earlier Thursday after the arson was discovered, but 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 give special emphasis to the investigation, 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 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.
Hebrew graffiti was found in an entrance corridor of the building that read, “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 and against IDF soldiers and installations 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.
Earlier, both left- and right-wing lawmakers took to Facebook to vehemently denounce the attack.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who oversees the police, called it “a cowardly and vile act that I vigorously condemn. We will not allow anyone to shake the coexistence between religions and ethnic groups in Israel.”
“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,” said MK Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beytenu party. “Law enforcement authorities should act with abundant severity toward whoever is found guilty.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev, of Likud, also strongly condemned the desecration of the church on her Facebook page and said she was confident the police would bring the criminals to justice.
MK Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Union) said the apprehension of the arsonists must be the Israel Police’s “highest priority.”
Interior Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) on 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.
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.
AFP contributed to this report.