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Israeli extremists suspected in arson attack on 'miracle' church

An adviser to the Roman Catholic Church said the attack would reverberate throughout the Christian world
A nun inspects the damage at a room located on the complex of the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the shores on the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, on 18 June, 2015, in the aftermath of a suspected arson attack (AFP)

TABGHA, Israel - An overnight arson attack damaged a revered shrine in northern Israel where Christians believe Jesus performed a miracle, and police briefly detained 16 young Jewish settlers over the incident Thursday.

The Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, is where many Christians believe Jesus fed the 5,000 in the miracle of the five loaves and two fish.

The blaze caused extensive damage to a book shop and other buildings at the complex but the Fifth Century mosaic floors which are its key archaeological feature were unharmed, reported the BBC.

Haaretz reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the aggression, saying: "The shocking torching of a church is an attack on all of us. Freedom of worship in Israel is one of the foundation stones of our values and is protected by law. We will exercise the full weight of the law with those responsible for this criminal act. Hate and intolerance have no place in our society."

A church adviser blamed Jewish extremists for the incident and police later said they had detained 16 youths from settlements in the occupied West Bank for questioning.

"In an area near the church, 16 youths were detained for investigation in order to check their involvement in the incident before dawn," police spokeswoman Luba Samri said in a statement.

She said 10 of those detained were from Yitzhar, which is known as a bastion of extremists and where some residents have been involved in previous hate crimes.

However, Samri said later that the youths had been released without charge after providing statements to the authorities.

A member of the Roman Catholic Benedictine order, which manages the site, said one of the buildings within the compound was completely destroyed in the blaze but the church itself was not damaged. 

Red spray-painted Hebrew graffiti was found on another building within the complex, reading "Idols will be cast out" or destroyed, an AFP correspondent reported. The text is part of a common Jewish prayer.

A priest walks past a graffiti reading in Hebrew "idols will be cast out" as he inspects the damage at the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the shores on the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, on 18 June 2015 (AFP)

Two people who were in the compound at the time were treated for smoke inhalation, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP. 

Father Matthias said an external atrium was "totally destroyed" in the blaze.

"The church, thank God, is in good condition," he told AFP. "We're very happy that nothing happened to the church."

Wadie Abu Nasser, an adviser to the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, said the arson attack would reverberate throughout the Christian world. 

"Israel's global image will be harmed," he told Israeli public radio. 

"When you put one and one together, between the graffiti and the arson, you can reach a conclusion regarding the potential suspects."

The Catholic Church in Israel expressed concern that this latest attack was one in a string of acts of aggression against holy Christian sites over the last few years, which it said the Israeli government and authorities have failed to deal with accordingly. A report on the matter has been given to the Vatican, reported Haaretz.

Tabgha was subjected to a previous attack in April 2014 in which church officials said a group of religious Jewish teenagers had damaged crosses and attacked clergy.

There has been a long line of attacks on Christian and Muslim holy places in both Israel and the West Bank, in which the perpetrators are believed to have been Jewish extremists.

"I absolutely condemn such acts," deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely said in a statement.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called the head of the Benedictine order in Israel to express his concern over the incident at the site, which is expected to be closed over the next three days.

The site is owned by the German Roman Catholic Church, and Berlin's envoy to Israel Andreas Michaelis said he was "shocked" by the incident. 

"I strongly condemn this attack and every form of violence" against places of worship or people working in them, he said in a statement. 

"Religious institutions must be as well protected in Israel as they are in Germany and Europe."

Israel's Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, said such incidents "go against Jewish values and human morality".

"I call upon religious leaders to be vigilant lest extremist phenomena erode the respectful relations that exist between the faiths in Israel," he said in a statement.

"The delicate fabric of these relations must be preserved."

In April, vandals smashed gravestones at a Maronite Christian cemetery near Israel's northern border with Lebanon.

That incident prompted Rivlin to meet church leaders and pledge a crackdown on religiously inspired hate crime.

Rabbis for Human Rights has reported that there have been 43 hate crime attacks on churches, mosques and monasteries in Israel and the occupied West Bank since 2009, according to Reuters news agency.

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