Suspects in attack on historic Israeli church allegedly belong to ‘extremist’ group


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The two suspects in the alleged arson attack on a historic church in northern Israel have been involved in attacks on churches and Palestinians.

The two men, ages 19 and 20, were indicted Wednesday in Nazareth Magistrate’s Court in connection with the June 18 attack on the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes.

“Administrative steps” will be taken against three other suspects who were not indicted, Israel’s Shin Bet security agency said in a statement issued Wednesday.

The five are part of a group of activists with “an extremist ideology” that has operated since 2013, according to the Shin Bet, and “aspires to change the regime and bring about the redemption via various stages of action.” Some of the activists also have been involved with the settler hilltop youth in the West Bank.

The group began with anti-Christian activity, including vandalizing and arson attacks on Christian sites, and also tried unsuccessfully to disrupt the May 2014 visit to Israel and the West Bank of Pope Benedict XVI. In the last year it also perpetrated arson attacks on Palestinian homes, the Shin Bet said.

“The Israel Security Agency and the Israel Police view with utmost gravity any intent or action to attack religious sites in the State of Israel and will work together in order to foil the activity,” the statement said.

Police initially detained 16 youths who were hiking in the area on the evening before the attack.

Along with the fire that struck the church, located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, graffiti reading “False idols will be smashed” and “pagans” were found on its walls. The site is where Jesus is believed to have fed thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish.

Built on the site of a fifth-century church, the church contains restored mosaic floors from the time period. The fire reportedly damaged the church’s roof and structure, as well as burned hundreds of books, according to Haaretz.

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