Nazareth, IsraelFather Matthias Karl hoped to begin rebuilding his shattered church complex on the shores of the Sea of Galilee after Christmas.
But following an arson attack six months ago that left one Catholic monk hospitalized and caused nearly $1.8 million in damage, the Israeli government, while strongly condemning the incident, has yet to provide promised financial compensation or put the two right-wing Jewish suspects on trial.
The June assault was the latest and most dramatic sign of tension between Christians in Israel and a growing movement of Jewish extremists who seek to cleanse their nation of religious minorities.
“The attacks have become more brutal and more aggressive,” said Father Nikodemus Schnabel, a Benedictine monk at the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion in Jerusalem that has been subject to several attacks. “And we have not been happy with the political response.”
Taking a page from the Islamic group ISIS operating in neighboring Syria, a small group of young fundamentalist Jews influenced by radical religious leaders target Christian sites as centers of heretical idol worship and unwelcome missionary activity. In the past three years, a dozen churches and monasteries have been bombed, burned, or vandalized. Until the June firebombing, no one was charged in any of these incidents.
Attacks on mosques by extremist Jews and assaults on synagogues by radical Arabs is a longstanding problem in the region. Targeting Christian sites, however, is a new phenomenon, say Israelis who monitor hate crimes.
“This is Jewish terror, and it is a threat not only for Muslims and Christians, but for the state of Israel itself,” says Gadi Gvaryahu, who directs Tag Meir, an organization that opposes extremist violence. “The attitude of the government was that this was just graffiti, and then just a few burned cars. Now there is violence.”
On the night of June 17, according to court documents, 20-year-old Yinon Reuveni and 19-year-old Yehuda Assraf left Jerusalem in a Subaru they had just bought in the West Bank, where they live in a Jewish settlement.
The two men stopped to buy gasoline at a filling station outside Tel Aviv, and arrived at the Church of the Multiplication along the Sea of Galilee that night.
The white stone church, built on top of a 5th-century sanctuary, commemorates the place where tradition says Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes to feed a large crowd. It features 6th–century mosaics that are among the earliest Christian mosaics in Israel. Six monks and six nuns manage the complex that includes guest accommodations and is overseen by Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem.
Israeli officials say that the two men waited until three in the morning to pour and light gasoline at the entrance to the monastery and in the reception area for pilgrims. They also spray painted in red the Hebrew words from a Jewish prayer denouncing idols.
An elderly monk, awakened by the noise of fire, began battling the blaze. Resident volunteers and dozens of Jewish guests quickly joined him. “The guests were able to give firefighters precise directions to the monastery in Hebrew,” Father Matthias said during a recent visit, as he pointed out blackened walls and floors.
Father Matthias recalled that a 79-year-old monk crawled out a second-story window and used a hose to spray the church roof, preventing the fire’s spread to the sanctuary before firefighters arrived. The monk was subsequently hospitalized for two days, along with a volunteer, for smoke inhalation.
A delegation of German rabbis and Catholic bishops visiting Israel rushed to the site that morning, along with foreign media. The rabbis denounced the attack, noting that German Jews had experience with the burning of their holy places in Nazi times. “There was too much pressure for the Israeli government to dismiss this,” said Father Nikodemus.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly designated the fire as a terrorist attack, making the church ineligible to draw on insurance but paving the way for government compensation. Two months later, the Israeli Tax Authority declared that the violent event did not qualify as terrorism, and therefore could not receive government funding.
When Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited the church in early September, just before meeting Pope Francis in Rome, he promised to help reverse that decision. “He was shocked by the extent of damage,” said Father Matthias. “Since then there have been a lot of meetings with the government, but no compensation.”
In the meantime, a group of Israeli rabbis started a crowd-funding campaign that raised $13,000 so that the church can start work on a new reception area for pilgrims. Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, director of the Jerusalem-based Elijah Interfaith Institute, led the effort that included the head of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
“Israel still protects the rights of minorities, and events like this overshadow this fact,” said Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein, noting that Iraq and Syria are in the midst of ethnic cleansing. “These are disenfranchised youth with very few leaders who are messianic activists riding on waves of suspicion and ignorance.”
On Trial in Nazareth
Some Israelis fear that the small group of violent extremists, made up mostly of young West Bank settlers, has been emboldened by the lack of prosecutions. Father Nikodemus described tense encounters with what he called “hippy Jews—they are young and cool looking, wearing cargo trousers and t-shirts.”
Assaf Sharon, a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University who has written about the history of Jewish terrorism, said the youth “are surrounded by institutions that condone, protect, and support them. And there is certainly authority behind them, including rabbis they look up to.”
A 2009 book written by two Israeli rabbis called The King’s Torah suggests that Jewish law legitimizes violence against Gentiles. Tag Meir director Gvaryahu was part of a legal effort to ban the volume, but the Israeli Supreme Court earlier this month rejected that plea as an infringement on free speech.
There have been no major attacks since June. But on December 17, right-wing activist Bentiz Gopstein, who leads the Lehava organization, published a column denouncing Christians as “blood-sucking vampires,” and added that “Christmas has no place in the Holy Land.”
Givaryahu, Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein, and Father Nikodemus, however, are optimistic that prosecution of the suspects in the Church of the Multiplication case will put a damper on the rise in violence against minorities. One of the two suspects is in jail, while the other is under house arrest. A trial is slated to take place in Nazareth early next year.
“Things have changed in the past three or four months,” said Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein. “Israeli forces are applying tougher measures.” Added Gvaryahu: “This is a struggle for what this country will be in the future, and the trial is a very important step.”
For Father Matthias, the destruction at the church complex has also brought benefits. “There’s a second fire—the fire of solidarity and love,” he said. “Jewish friends have been showing up here for the past six months to offer their support and to assure us that the extremists will not win.”