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Church burning highlights danger to Palestinian heritage from Israeli extremists

by Sarah Irving   22 June 2015    Electronic Intifada

A Christian cleric inspects the damage caused by a suspected arson to the complex of the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha, on the shores on the Sea of Galilee, 18 June 2015  Photo: Atef SafadiEPA

A fire that badly damaged a church containing fifth-century mosaics, in Tabgha in the Galilee in the north of present-day Israel, has underlined the threat to Palestinian history and culture – as well as to lives and livelihoods – posed by extremists in Israel.

The fire was said to have started in several places around the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, a strong indication that it was set deliberately, according to investigators.

Hebrew graffiti painted on the outside of the church invoked biblical passages calling on the faithful to destroy the “idols” of pagans.

Christian tradition holds that the church marks the place where Jesus performed the miracle of the feeding of 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fishes. The modern-day church was built in the 1980s over early Christian remains, including a set of famous Byzantine mosaics depicting the miraculous fishes. The mosaics were not damaged in the blaze.

Images of the destruction show a completely burnt-out roof, but stone walls still standing. A local fire chief told Reuters that there was “extensive damage, both inside and out.”

Desiree Bellars, a volunteer at the church from South Africa who lives at the site, told Reuters that the blaze erupted in middle of the night: “All the electricity went out, the fire raged and the flames shot up into the sky.”

Detail of a mosaic at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. (Berthold Werner/Wikimedia Commons)

The same church suffered an earlier attack in 2014, in which Israeli youths were witnessed “pelting worshippers with stones, destroying a cross and throwing benches into the lake.”

The attack bears many of the hallmarks of settler “price tag“ attacks, assaults by extremist settler groups, many of which have been on Christian sites. Sixteen youths from West Bank settlements, including the extremist stronghold Yitzhar, were arrested soon after the attack, but released just a few hours later without charge.

Other sites that have suffered similar attacks include another church in Tabgha and a mosque in Fureidis, both in the Galilee region, in 2014, and a Greek Orthodox seminary in Jerusalem in 2015.

Hate crimes

In recent weeks, tensions rose in Jerusalem when Jewish extremists barricaded themselves in the Cenacle, a site in the Old City where Christians believe Jesus and his disciples held the Last Supper. The extremists, who were forcibly removed by Israeli police, were attempting to prevent Christians from holding Pentecost celebrations there.

Monks from the Benedictine Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem have also complained that they are increasingly the targets of “hate crimes” ranging from spitting, verbal attacks and vandalism.

A spokesperson for the abbey told the Catholic News Service that so-called Hilltop Youth, Israelis associated with the most radical elements of the West Bank settler movement, were responsible for the attacks and police were doing nothing to stop them.

The Joint Arab List, a coalition of Palestinian political parties in Israel, reacted to the Tabgha arson by calling for the “immediate dismissal of Israel’s police chief, Yohanan Danino, and for right-wing extremist groups to be declared terrorist organizations,” Haaretz reports.

Despite statements that the incident would be investigated as a matter of urgency, the Joint Arab List accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of stirring up ethnic tensions.

The government “does not give the police orders and doesn’t invest any effort” to stop such attacks, the Joint Arab List said, “and the result is more radical deeds.”

“Netanyahu stands at the head of the incitement system against the Arab public in Israel, and he is guilty of the revenge attacks we witness in the morning news,” the party stated. “A so-called price-tag attack is not an act by deviants, but rather an act by calculated, thinking people that are indicative of the existence and repercussions of institutionalized racism and oppression.”

Till when will Israel let its churches and mosques be burnt?
Israel must treat those behind hate crimes like the one committed in Tiberias with no less gravity than those who send car bombs into city centers.
Haaretz Editorial <> -- Jun. 21, 2015
The torching of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish at Tabgha, near Tiberias, on Thursday is the 18th arson attack on a church or mosque over the past four years. Not one of these cases has been solved, none of the perpetrators identified and, obviously, no one charged for the offenses. These are part of a wider range of actions, including hate graffiti sprayed on mosques and churches, spitting at Christian priests in Jerusalem, and the issuing of edicts by assorted rabbis against “gentiles.”
Damaging holy sites is not just a criminal act or a regular hate crime. Protecting the freedom of worship is one of the basic universal precepts included in all international treaties and constitutions, making up a central feature of cultural identity. Even countries that define themselves according to their prevailing religion, such as some Islamic states, view religious institutions of other faiths as holy sites, persecuting and punishing people who defile them.
Legislation against damaging holy sites is crystal clear in Israel, as is the official public discourse purportedly led by the government. In addition to cleaving to the definition of Israel as a Jewish state, the government strongly condemns all cases in which a non-Jewish holy site is defaced. However, it’s hard to take seriously the condemnations uttered by the prime minister, cabinet ministers and Knesset members when, at the same time, they give a nod and wink to those who infringe on the state’s sovereignty by embarking on private religious and cultural campaigns against Christians and Muslims.
What did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually broadcast to the public after the latest torching? That he had instructed the head of the Shin Bet security service to accelerate the investigation to find the perpetrators. Does this mean that defacing religious institutions was not on the Shin Bet’s agenda until now? Can one also conclude that locating the perpetrators of anti-Arab hate crimes is not a focus of its attention?
It’s fair to say that defiling holy sites is not perceived as a “classic” terror act that endangers state security. This interpretation is also obvious to the perpetrators of hate crimes and religious fanatics. Their continued freedom gives them a sense of security, which allows them to continue with their crimes.
The government of Israel, rightfully, wouldn’t have ignored the torching of synagogues, the destruction of tombstones in Jewish cemeteries or assaults against Jews in other countries if governments were lax in investigating such crimes. Now, it must show determination to uproot such hate crimes from areas under its jurisdiction, defining perpetrators as terrorists who endanger Israel’s security, no less than those who send car bombs into city centers.