Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – The Tabgha Church suffered fire damage in what the authorities believe to be an arson attack.
According to Gospel tradition, the church stands on the site where Jesus performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.
The building itself is located on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee, and is one of the most important Christian holy sites in the Galilee.
Initial reports said that the entire building had burnt. However, only a storage room and church offices suffered damages, and two people were slightly hurt from smoke inhalation.
The church itself was not touched, said Fr Matthias Karl, a member of the German Benedictine order in charge of the site. Quick action by firefighters stopped the fire from spreading to others parts of the building.
Israeli police detained 16 youth on suspicion of involvement in the incident but later released them. Ten of them could be yeshiva students.
Graffiti in biblical Hebrew were scribbled on one wall, urging Israel to throw out those worshipping pagan gods. The words come from a prayer practicing Jews repeat three times a day asking God to destroy idols and pagans.
Jewish extremist or Israeli settlers could be behind the attack against the Christian place of worship. In recent years others places of worship have been attacked, including the church near the Upper Room, the Basilica of Nazareth, as well as other Catholic and Greek-Orthodox places of worship.
Muslim mosques and places of worship have also been targeted in what Israeli extremists call a "price tag" on Christians and Muslims for having "taken away their land."
Once such actions were limited only to areas on the border with the West Bank and in Jerusalem, but now have spread too much of Israel.
In a statement the Israeli Embassy to the Holy See slammed this morning’s act of vandalism, which is "in total contradiction" with the values and traditions of Israel and "do not represent in any way" the State of Israel.
Police sources said that the 16 youths are from Jewish settlements, ten of them from Yitzhar, a known bastion of extremists. Some of its residents were previously involved in hate crimes.
Tabgha suffered a previous attack in April 2014, on the eve of Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to the Holy Land.
Fr Matthias Karl, a German monk at the church, said a souvenir shop, an office for pilgrims and a meeting room were badly damaged last night, with bibles and prayer books destroyed.
“The fire was very active,” he said, but “The church, thank God is in good condition,” he added. “We’re very happy that nothing happened” to it.