AN arson attack on a church in Israel revered as the site of a miracle by Jesus Christ is part of a deepening cycle of violence against Christians, according to a Holy Land bishop who fears worse is to come. Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said the attack on Thursday, 18th June) on the Catholic Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves close to the Sea of Galilee increases his concerns that extremist Jews are out to target other faith communities, notably Christians.
A Benedictine monk and a visitor to the site in Tabgha were treated for smoke inhalation following the blaze which badly damaged buildings constructed on the site believed to be where Christ performed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.
In a message to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need which helped build an oratory on the site, Bishop Shomali said the incident increased his fears that extremist Jews "are increasing in number and in the degree of intolerance". He said: "There is a real escalation in the anti-Christian violence, from a small fire which leaves little damage to a bigger fire and finally to an arson which intends to produce great damage and even killing. We are allowed to ask: what will happen next?"
A souvenir shop, an office for pilgrims and a meeting room were reportedly badly damaged in the blazed, which destroyed Bibles and prayer books.
The words "all idols will be smashed" - an extract from a Jewish prayer - was sprayed in red paint on a wall outside the church.
There were no reports of any damage to the oratory Aid to the Church in Need helped to build in 2012 and which forms part of a Benedictine monastery next to the church.
Within hours of the blaze, the Israeli government condemned the violence. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin stated: "Such terrible desecration of an ancient and holy place of prayer is an attack on the very fabric of life in our country. Israel, as a state and a society, is obligated to protect and preserve the holy sites, for all faiths."
Thanking the regime for its swift response, Bishop Shomali said: "I am inclined to think that the act is perpetrated by a very small and aggressive group. I cannot put all Israelis in the same basket, since there are the liberal and intolerant Jews, those who are less [tolerant] and finally those who hate the non-Jews. My fear is that these radicals are increasing in number and in the degree of intolerance."
Meantime, the Catholic bishops of the Holy Land issued a joint statement last night saying that they and all the Christians in the region were "deeply shocked" by the attack on the Tabgha church.
The bishops stated: "It is another act of violence perpetrated by intolerant and unscrupulous individuals that damages the image of the Holy Land, offends Christians in the country and the Church as a whole and distresses the idea of a state that defines itself as democratic, tolerant and secure."
The statement highlighted that this was the second attack on the church, reporting that young extremist Jews had desecrated crosses and an altar there in April 2014.
The bishops stated that a month later a blaze broke out in reportedly suspicious circumstances at Jerusalem's Benedictine Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion.
The fire, which took place close to where Christ reportedly held the Last Supper, started a few minutes after the site had been visited by Pope Francis during his Holy Land trip.
Aid to the Church in Need helped fund a new monastery attached to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves. The building replaced one erected in the 1950s which had become unsafe as it had inadequate foundations in an earthquake zone.
ACN helped build an oratory within the monastery enabling the monks to pray quietly away from the main church which becomes noisy with the many pilgrims going there.