​Israel questions, sets free 16 young Jewish settlers after Christian church burned down

A priest 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 June 18, 2015, in the aftermath of a suspected arson attack (AFP Photo / Menahem Kahana)
A group of young Jewish settlers suspected of torching the Catholic Church of the Multiplication, on the spot where Jesus is believed to have performed a Biblical miracle, have been released without charge. Israel has vowed to find the arsonists.

The church, located on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, was set ablaze early Thursday morning. Graffiti saying, “The false gods will be eliminated,” in Hebrew – a quote from a Jewish prayer – was also daubed on a wall. The church was marking the Biblical story of the Feeding of the 5,000, in which Jesus fed a crowd with five loaves and two fish, and has been rebuilt several times since the fifth century.

The building suffered extensive damage, with the roof partly collapsed and stone walls charred. Several members of the clergy suffered smoke inhalation, and one 80-year-old monk was reportedly hospitalized. The altar of the Catholic church is said to have been left intact, despite the damage to its other rooms. A church shop with Bibles and prayer books was completely destroyed in the fire.

Sixteen Jewish youths visiting the area from the West Bank were detained for questioning following the arson. The group, which included several seminary students and legal minors, were set free with no conditions after their testimonies were taken.

READ MORE: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned the burning of the church

“In an area near the church, 16 youths were detained for investigation in order to check their involvement in the incident before dawn,” Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri said in a statement. “All 16 were released, with no conditions attached, after being interviewed and giving statements.”

“The shocking arson of the church is an attack on all of us,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “Israel’s freedom of religion is a cornerstone of our values and it is anchored in the law. We will mete out justice to those responsible for this atrocious act. We have no room for hatred and intolerance in our society.”

Father Jamal Khader, rector of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Beit Jalla in the West Bank, linked the attack with a stone-throwing assault on the same church perpetrated by radical Jewish youths last year, and accused the authorities of “not doing enough” to stop similar incidents.

Known as “price tag” attacks, these acts of vandalism of mainly Muslim and Palestinian, but also Christian and Jewish sites, are supposedly a form of retribution for anti-settler steps and activity, as well as for terrorist attacks against Jews.

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Earlier this year, a mosque was set on fire in a village near Bethlehem, with the Star of David and the word “Revenge” painted on one of the walls. Last year, attackers defaced a Catholic church in Jerusalem, daubing the words, “Jesus is garbage.”

Tag Meir, an Israeli anti-racism group, says that no prosecutions have been brought in connection with dozens of such incidents that have taken place over the last three years.

“Punishing these crimes is not a priority for the authorities,” said Yossi Saidov, a Tag Meir activist. “The message that comes down from the prime minister to the individual policeman is that it’s all right that this happens, it’s not so terrible. If 43 synagogues were attacked in Poland and the authorities didn’t stop it, we would scream that it was anti-Semitism and rightly so.”