Police and agents of the Shin Bet security service overnight Saturday arrested several suspects in last month’s arson attack on the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha in the Galilee, the Shin Bet announced Sunday morning.
The arrests came following “a covert, strenuous and professional investigation that began right after the church was torched,” the Shin Bet said in a statement. Details of the arrests, including the number of suspects and their place of residence, are under a court-imposed gag order. The suspects were being questioned by the Shin Bet.
The investigation is being led by the Nationalist Crimes Division of the Judea and Samaria Police, a unit specializing in investigating hate crimes by Jewish extremists.
“Several Jewish suspects have been arrested for the burning of the church and the Nazareth court has decided to extend their detention for the purposes of the investigation,” police spokeswoman Luba Samri said in a statement of the overnight arrests.
The suspects will appear in Nazareth Magistrate’s Court on Sunday for a remand hearing, Israel Radio said. Police are seeking a remand extension.
The church, 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 set on fire June 16. Two people who were in the building, a 19-year-old tourist and a 79-year-old employee, suffered minor injuries from 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, Hebrew graffiti was found reading, “The false gods will be eliminated” — a quote from Jewish liturgy.
The Church of the Multiplication, 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.
The church attack drew fierce condemnation from Israeli leaders from both sides of the aisle, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructing the Shin Bet to swiftly apprehend the perpetrators.
Father Gregory Collins, the head of the Order of Saint Benedict in Israel, who presides over the church, told a demonstration in late June that “the attack on the church is an attack on all those who believe in a civilization of love and coexistence.”
Catholic Church officials accused the government of not doing enough to stop such crimes, 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 on Christian and Muslim sites and noted that the church had been targeted by rock-throwing teenagers in April 2014.
Using the slogan “price tag,” right-wing Jewish extremists have carried out a large number of arson and graffiti attacks against Muslim and Christian sites and property in the West Bank and Jerusalem and attacked IDF installations, ostensibly as retribution for Palestinian attacks on Jews and Israeli government actions deemed contrary to the interests of West Bank settlers.
AFP contributed to this report