Settlers questioned over arson attack on ‘Loaves and Fishes’ church

Catholic church stands on site in Israel where many believe Jesus performed one of the best-known miracles told in the Bible


A Catholic church at a revered site near the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel was damaged by fire early on Thursday, in what the police are treating as an arson attack and possible hate crime.

Graffiti denouncing idol worship using the language of a Hebrew prayer was found spray-painted in red on an outside wall of the church, strengthening the suspicion that Jewish extremists may have been responsible for the attack.

The police briefly detained a group of 16 Israeli youths who had spent the night in the area, several of them from a Jewish religious seminary in Yitzhar, a West Bank settlement known for radicalism. But the youths were soon released because of a lack of evidence.

The church, known as the Church of the Multiplication, stands on the site where many Christians believe Jesus performed one of the best-known miracles told in the Bible, feeding 5,000 people with two fishes and five loaves of bread. Pilgrims have visited and prayed at the site for decades.

The fire in the church compound at Tabgha, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, broke out shortly after 3am.

Images distributed by the police showed a stone-walled structure in the compound smoldering with its roof gutted. Firefighters extinguished the blaze before it reached the main prayer hall, and the church’s ancient mosaic floors, dating from the fifth century, were unharmed, the police said.

Even so, the damage to the compound was severe, said Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, adding that evidence found at the scene indicated that the fire was set deliberately.

Mr Rosenfeld said the investigation was continuing.

Israeli leaders condemned the attack. “Such terrible desecration of an ancient and holy place of prayer is an attack on the very fabric of life in our country, where people of different faiths seek to live together in harmony and mutual tolerance and respect,” president Reuven Rivlin told the Rev Gregory Collins, the leader of the Order of St Benedict in Israel, which runs the church, according to a statement from Mr Rivlin’s office.