Earlier this summer, in the spot on the Sea of Galilee traditionally hailed as the site of Christ’s feeding of the five thousand, the Roman Catholic Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha, Israel, was torched in an arson attack. And as of a few weeks ago, three young right-wing Jewish men—Yinon Reuveni, twenty, Yehuda Asraf, nineteen, and Moshe Orbach, twenty-four—have been indicted on suspicion of responsibility.
In the U.S., the incident was rightly overshadowed by the more serious news of the horrific Charleston shooting. Here in Israel, however, the story made a bigger splash. Though the church’s sanctuary was not seriously harmed, part of the roof collapsed, Bibles and hundreds of books were ruined, and a volunteer and Benedictine monk suffered minor smoke inhalation.
The indicted young men, all allegedly active Jewish extremists, left behind a message in red-scrawled Hebrew on the church wall. It reads, “the false gods will be eliminated”—a line from the Jewish liturgy’s Aleinu prayer. For Christians, this message envelops the attack in a bittersweet irony. A prayer attributed to Joshua—that is, Yehoshua, one of the greatest Christ figures of the Old Testament and bearer of His name—has been used to call the Yeshua whom Yehoshua prefigured an idol.
Nevertheless, the attack ended up being less notable for the actual damage done than for the remarkable outpouring of Jewish support for Christians following the crime. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared freedom of religion “a cornerstone” of Israel’s values, and urged Israel’s Shin Bet security service to speed investigations. President Reuvin Rivlin declared he was “shocked and saddened” and that every effort to “bring those responsible to justice” would be made. Members of three prominent Jewish interfaith groups, along with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and sixteen Orthodox rabbis, even spearheaded a fundraising campaign for repairing the church.
For Christians, the incident presents an opportunity for thankfulness. Concern has been expressed that such attacks garner much talk and not enough action from Israeli authorities. Nevertheless, by and large the outpouring of support and the indictment of these men—especially in view of the horrific atrocities currently committed against Christians in the rest of the Middle East—offers more an opportunity to thank God for the religious freedom Israel grants Christians than a reason to mourn a lack of it.
We can hardly be surprised at such persecution, even in countries which protect freedom of religious practice. Christ has promised us nothing less. “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:18-20).
A particularly comforting image from the attack has stood out throughout news coverage of the incident. It depicts the church’s famous 5th-century Byzantine mosaic floor. Directly in front of the altar is a stunning mosaic of two fishes and a basket of bread—like the twelve baskets described in the four Gospels as being left over following the feeding of the 5,000. There, amidst charred and blackened rubble in Tabgha, remain His fish and His loaves in front of the much greater food upon the altar: His precious Body and Blood.
Again, with a sad irony, it was the feeding of the 5,000 the Evangelists set apart symbolically in the Scriptures as specifically for the Jews. “‘Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?’” Jesus later told his disciples. “‘How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread?’” (Matt. 16:9-11). On the Sea of Galilee, five loaves were fed to 5,000 for those who follow the five books of Moses, and “the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over” after feeding the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 14:20).
As Christians, even as we thank God for strong Jewish support following the arson, the sad irony of that mosaic presents an even more pressing call for forgiveness and prayer—for Yehuda, Yinon, and Moshe, and for our public Jewish supporters. For while Christians still enjoy the freedom to eat and drink His Eucharist of the New Covenant at the Church of the Multiplication—in the same place Christ offered a new covenant to 5,000 Jews 2,000 years ago—our neighbors’ eyes remain closed to that meal Christ has set before them. In the same spot where years ago He multiplied five loaves for the Jews, the new covenant offered in that meal remains too radical for either right-wing extremist Jews or interfaith peace-making Jews to embrace.
So as we mourn and pray for those at the affected church, let us mourn and pray still more for our Jewish neighbors. In the end, Christians can have little to fear from arson attacks—we have already been saved from the lake of eternal fire. Despite the damage at the Church of the Multiplication, the meal of His Eucharist remains, granting us eternal life and salvation with a foretaste of that marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which shall have no end. Let us pray fervently and wholeheartedly that our Jewish neighbors soon join with us to partake in that foretaste—a meal and miracle far greater than that of the multiplication.
Ramona V. Tausz writes from Jerusalem.