Escalation of threats and vandalism trigger claims that authorities turn blind eye to religious extremism.
An arson attack has gutted part of the church at the site where Christians believe Jesus performed a miracle by feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Israeli fire brigade said.
A verse from a Hebrew prayer denouncing the worship of “false gods” was spray-painted in red on a church wall, suggesting Jewish activists were responsible.
Sixteen Jewish minors from settlements in the West Bank were arrested in relation to Thursday morning’s arson attack, but were later released without charge, Israeli police told Al Jazeera.
A spokesman for the fire brigade said a preliminary investigation showed the blaze broke out in several places inside the church, evidence that it was started deliberately.
The limestone Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, was constructed in the 1980s and is overseen by the Benedictine Order.
It was built on the site of 4th and 5th century churches that commemorated what Christian faithful revere as Jesus’ miraculous feeding of 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish.
“The torching of the church is a cowardly and despicable act which contradicts Israel’s basic values,” Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan said in a statement.
Al Jazeera’s Nisreen El-Shamayleh, reporting from West Jerusalem, said the number of attacks on Christian and Islamic holy sites has increased significantly over the past few years.
“What is common is the anti-Christian graffiti that is spray painted on the buildings,” our correspondent said.
The Rabbis for Human Rights group said there have been 43 hate crime attacks against churches, mosques and monasteries in Israel and the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2009.
No damage was reported to 5th century mosaic floors that have been restored in the church.