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TABGHA, Israel – Israeli police say they have arrested 16 Jewish settler youths after a Catholic church near the Sea of Galilee was heavily damaged by an arson attack Thursday.
A fire broke out at the Church of the Multiplication in the middle of the night, causing extensive damage to the inside and outside of the building, said Israel police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
A passage from a Jewish prayer, calling for the elimination of idol worship, was found scrawled in red spray paint on a wall outside the church.
The nationalist crimes unit of the Israeli police's West Bank settlement division is investigating the incident. The youths arrested are all religious Jewish seminary students from West Bank settlements. Their lawyer, Itamar Ben Gvir, told Israeli Army Radio the police had no evidence against the youths and that they were under suspicion simply for looking like young settlers.
Father Matthias Karl, a German monk from the church, said a souvenir shop, an office for pilgrims and a meeting room were badly damaged, and bibles and prayer books were destroyed in the fire.
"It's totally destroyed. The fire was very active," he said.
A monk and a church volunteer were hospitalized from smoke inhalation, but the prayer area of the church was unaffected by the fire, he said.
In recent years, mosques and churches have been targeted by vandals in similar attacks. They are often attributed to extremist Jews in West Bank settlements.
Such attacks are widely condemned across the political spectrum in Israel. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely condemned Thursday's church burning and said Israel respects freedom of worship for all religions.
Last year, a group of mostly Jewish youth attacked the Church of the Multiplication's outdoor prayer area along the Sea of Galilee, Father Matthias said, pelting worshippers with stones, destroying a cross and throwing benches into the lake.
The Roman Catholic church, also known as the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, is a modern church built on the remains of a fifth-century Byzantine church. It marks the traditional spot of Jesus' miracle of the loaves and fish, and is located in Tabgha on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.
Its Byzantine mosaic floor draws thousands of visitors of all faiths each year, Father Matthias said.