Christian sites need more protection, Israeli church leaders say

A fire gutted part of the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes on June 17 and officials confirmed that it was an arson attack.

The Israeli government needs to do more than simply condemn attacks against Christian sites, church leaders have urged, amid rising tensions between religions groups.

Speaking to Catholic News Service (CNS), Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal said, "Sometimes the government of Israel condemns (incidents) and many private Israeli institutions and Israelis come or write beautiful letters condemning the attacks, saying this is not their way.

"But it is not enough for the government to condemn the actions. We ask for follow-up with action."

In June, the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha was subject to an arson attack. A Roman Catholic church that sits on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, it is visited by around 5,000 pilgrims every day. According to Christian tradition, it marks the site where Jesus fed 5,000 people with just five loaves and two fish – the only miracle other than the resurrection to be recorded in all four of the Gospels.

The fire gutted part of the church, causing extensive damage. A verse from a Hebrew prayer "And false idols will be smashed" was also spray painted on a wall which led investigators to believe that Jewish extremists were responsible.

In the wake of the attack, Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan denounced the incident as a "cowardly and despicable act which contradicts Israel's basic values," while Prime Minister Benhamin Netanyahu described it as "an attack on all of us". He promised that the perpetrators would be found and prosecuted. Three suspects have since been arrested.

However, church leaders now say that further, concrete, action needs to be taken against perpetrators.

Benedictine Father Nikodemus Schnabel, of the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion, told CNS that churches in the region have been subject to vandalism and arson attacks for years.

His abbey was set on fire in May 2014, not long after a visit from Pope Francis. In February is this year, a Jerusalem building belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church was torched by arsonists, and Benedictine monks are often spat at, or verbally abused, Fr Schnabel said. He says that not enough has been done to deter these attacks, or hold the perpetrators to account.

"We are very thankful for the many signs of solidarity from our friends in the civil society, but (until Tabgha) we never heard any officials respond," he explained.

His fellow monks are "very happy with the words," but are "now looking for results," he added, suggesting that there may be a "serious lack of will" among the police force to get to the bottom of the crimes.

"I hope I am wrong but we have that have to go to the root of the problem."

Far-right Jewish extremists are usually blamed for these incidents. They are known to instigate 'price tag' attacks against Palestinian property and religious sites.