An interfaith ceremony and a Mass marked yesterday’s reopening of the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, victim of an arson attack by Jewish extremists. Israel’s president and moderate rabbis were present at the event. For Sobhy Makhoul, the weakness of the Israeli government encourages extremism. Catholic schools and agreements with the Holy See remain unresolved problems.
Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – The reopening of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha, after nearly 20 months of closure due to arson, represents an "opportunity" to bring together people who believe "in dialogue and co-existence".
Speaking to AsiaNews, Sobhy Makhoul, of the Maronite Church of Jerusalem and director of the Christian Media Center, insisted on the importance of yesterday’s celebration, which marked a return to normal activities in the place of worship.
The reopening took place in an interfaith ceremony and a Mass led by Card Rainer Woelki, archbishop of Cologne and president of the German Holy Land Association.
The function was attended by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin – who had expressed his solidarity to Christians at the time of the attack – and by moderate rabbis, an important step for the Christian leader, at a time when “some Israeli religious extremist groups want to deny Christians the right to profess their faith."
The fire caused major damage to the library and to a number of structures in the compound; however, the flames spared 5th century mosaic floors.
The restoration work lasted about eight months, for a total cost of around a million dollars. However, the Israeli government and the Church of the Holy Land clashed over compensation.
At first, the authorities denied that the attack was an act of terrorism, which effectively prevents compensation. Later they changed their mind and decided to contribute to the renovation and restoration of the church.
Sobhy Makhoul told AsiaNews that work was partly funded by "a group of moderate rabbis". For him, this is an "important signal" at a time of strong "religious fundamentalism, not only among Muslims but also among Jews."
Extremist groups "are growing and deny that others have the right to live and profess their faith."
The basic problem for the Christian leader is that the "government is dead in spirit, composed of unscrupulous people who no longer believe in old values.”
There are no "charismatic figures like those of the past," Shimon Peres or others for example, who had "a solid cultural background, ideas and strategies for the future in the interest of peace."
Right-wing and extreme right-wing people are "devoid of spirit, as the Jews say", and this "encourages fundamentalist elements and ideologies.”
“To please everyone, this government does nothing." In this context, settlements "exacerbate the problem" and the conflict with the Palestinians.
“International agreements are not respected. In the name of security, Israel thinks it can act as it pleases. Settlements and expansionist projects cause further tensions, and are a source of instability and insecurity. They end up harming Christians."
For the member of the Maronite Patriarchate in Jerusalem, two major problems remain unresolved: the "question of Catholic schools" and the funds the government of Israel still refuses to allocate to them, and the latter’s failure to ratify the long-awaited agreements between Israel and the Holy See.
Jewish extremist and settlers have also targeted other Christian sites in the recent past, like the church near the Upper Room, and the Basilica of Nazareth, as well as other Catholic shrines, Greek Orthodox churches, mosques and other Muslim places of worship.
Likewise, Israeli extremists want to impose a "price tag" on Christians and Muslims for, in their view, taking away “their land”. Initially, the problem was confined to the West Bank and Jerusalem, but it has spread to Israel proper.
Tabgha had already been attacked in April 2014, on the eve of Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to the Holy Land.