The Nazareth District Court on Monday convicted 22-year-old Yinon Reuveni for a 2015 arson attack by Jewish extremists that heavily damaged a church in northern Israel where Christians believe Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
During the hearing, Judge George Azulay acquitted 21-year-old Yehuda Asraf, who was accused of assisting Reuveni in setting fire to the church building.
In their 2015 indictment, the Shin Bet said that Reuveni, currently a resident of the southern town of Ofakim, had been banished from the West Bank on several occasions and is a suspect in a series of hate crimes, including the February 2015 arson attack at Jerusalem’s Dormition Abbey.
Asraf, the Shin Bet said, had been living on an illegal outpost and is active in extremist Jewish circles.
Two rooms of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee were vandalized and badly damaged in the fire two years ago.
The arson attack, at the site where many Christians believe Jesus fed 5,000 in the miracle of the five loaves and two fish, completely destroyed a building in the compound. The church itself was not damaged.
Hebrew graffiti was found on another building within the complex, reading: “Idols will be cast out or destroyed.”
The complex reopened to pilgrims in February this year following eight months of renovation work at a cost of around $1 million dollars, of which the State of Israel contributed almost $400,000.
President Reuven Rivlin and his wife attended an interfaith meeting to mark the reopening along with Christian dignitaries, including Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Ambassador of Germany Dr. Clemens von Goetze, Sheikh Muafak Tarīf, and Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, as well as Jordan Valley Local Council leader Idan Greenbaum and donors in the Roman Catholic church.
Itamar Ben Gvir, the attorney who represented Reuveni and Asraf, told The Times of Israel after the ruling that he planned to challenge the decision.
“The judgment ignored most of the claims that we made during the trial,” Ben Gvir said. “The judge did not give fair treatment to the defense that we presented.”
A third suspect, Moshe Orbach, was charged with writing and distributing a document detailing the “necessity” of attacking non-Jewish property and people as well as laying out practical advice on how to do so. He is still awaiting trial.
The attack on the church sparked widespread condemnation and concern from Christians globally, with the site visited by some 5,000 people daily, while also drawing renewed attention to religiously linked hate crimes in Israel.