16 West Bank youths questioned, released in connection with church fire
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16 West Bank youths questioned, released in connection with church fire

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Sixteen youths were detained by police for questioning over a suspected arson attack on a historic church in northern Israel.

The youths, reportedly all residents of the West Bank who were hiking in the area, were later released, according to reports.

Fire broke out early Thursday morning at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, at the site where Jesus is believed to have fed thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The church is built on the site of a fifth-century church and contains restored mosaic floors from the time period. The mosaic floors reportedly were not damaged in the fire, according to Reuters.

Graffiti reading “False idols will be smashed” and “pagans” were found on the walls of the church, leading police to believe the fire was set deliberately as part of a hate crime. The Northern District Police are investigating the fire and graffiti.

The detained youths reportedly are being represented by the right-wing Honenu legal rights organization.

The Rabbis for Human Rights organization told Reuters that there have been 43 hate crime attacks against churches, mosques and monasteries in Israel, the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem since 2009.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attack, saying, “In Israel, freedom of worship is one of our core values and is guaranteed under the law. Those responsible for this despicable crime will face the full force of the law.”

President Reuven Rivlin, in a call to Father Gregory Collins, head of the Order of Saint Benedict in Israel, called the incident “an attack on the very fabric of life in our country.”

The Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land condemned the attack in a statement, saying it “calls on the police forces and respective authorities to do their utmost to bring the perpetrators to justice, to prevent such attacks and restore safety and respect for Holy Sites of all religions.”

The statement said the council represents the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the heads of the local churches of the Holy Land and the courts of Sharia law in the Palestinian Authority.

Lawmakers in Israel and the country’s Ashkenazic chief rabbi, David Lau, also condemned the attack.