JERUSALEM — Vandals set fire Thursday to a church marking the site where worshipers believe Jesus performed his bread-and-fish miracle, in an attack that police are investigating as a possible hate crime.
The blaze damaged the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes in northern Israel — venerated as the place where Scripture says Jesus turned five loaves of bread and two fish into a meal for 5,000 people. Police initially questioned 16 Jewish settlers, all minors, staying nearby. They were later released.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the arson attack bore resemblance to previous acts of vandalism by Jewish extremists, who have targeted monasteries, churches, mosques and cemeteries. He said Hebrew graffiti was scrawled at the site, including a verse from a Jewish prayer reading, “False idols will be smashed.”
Such attacks, often referred to as “price tag” attacks, were initially part of a campaign to extract retribution for actions against Jewish settlements in the West Bank by Israeli authorities or Palestinians. The attacks have now spread.
Israel has debated whether to label the hate crimes as terrorism.
“The shocking arson attack on a church hurts all of us,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday, pledging to bring those responsible “for this heinous crime” to justice.
The church — located in Tabgha alongside the Sea of Galilee — is famous for its 5th-century Byzantine mosaics that depict fish and baskets of bread. More than 5,000 tourists and pilgrims visit each day.
The fire caused significant harm to the church’s storage room and some offices. A prayer room also was lightly damaged, but the ancient mosaics and the main sanctuary were not harmed, officials said.
In another apparent price-tag attack, arsonists in November gutted the only school in Jerusalem that teaches students in both Arabic and Hebrew. Police arrested members of a radical group that opposes relations between Jews and Arabs.
On the other side, Palestinian vandals in the past have torched synagogues and damaged Jewish grave sites.
Critics of the government’s efforts against such attacks have repeatedly questioned why the perpetrators are rarely caught and prosecuted.
The church, which is run by the Roman Catholic Benedictine Order, is one of the most visited Christian sites in Israel. The compound will be closed for several days as the arson is investigated and the damage assessed.
“We consider this to be a serious hate crime,” the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land said. “It comes at a time when many hate crimes are taking place against holy sites and we are wondering where is the government and the security services?”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin — who spoke by phone with the Rev. Gregory Collins, head of the Order of Saint Benedict in Israel — said that “few people do more damage to Israel than those who carry out such acts.”
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who oversees Israeli police, also denounced the attack as an “act of lowly cowardice,” according to the newspaper Haaretz.
Wadie Abu Nasser, an adviser to the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, said there had been a growing number of such assaults on religious sites — Christian, Muslim and Jewish — over the past few years.
“We believe that it is only a tiny minority of people who are motivated by an ideology of hatred towards the other, but it is very sad that there is not a sufficient deterrence,” he said. “There needs to be better education so that people can learn to coexist.”