'Red Line Crossed' as Vatican Official Demands Israel Charge Jewish Extremist

Church of loaves and fishes
A nun looks at damage caused by a fire in the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel June 18, 2015. Renovation of the church cost around $1 million and was partly funded by the state of Israel. Baz Ratner/Reuters

Vatican representatives have asked Israel to charge a controversial Jewish extremist who they allege advocated the burning of churches. A senior advisor to the Catholic Church in Israel warned that a "red line has been crossed" following a spate of anti-Christian attacks in the country.

The Custody of the Holy Land, which is tasked with looking after the Catholic Church's shrines in Israel and Palestine, sent a letter to the Israeli Attorney General and the State Prosecutor demanding that Benzi Gopstein, the leader of extreme Right-wing group Lehava, be indicted, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Gopstein reportedly expressed support for arson attacks on churches in a public debate last week, citing a 12th-century Jewish philosopher who considered Christianity to be idolatrous and worthy of destruction.

"The writing is on the wall, and a cost to human life, which consequences that cannot be foretold, isn't a question of if but of when," wrote Attorney Farid Joubran, the representative for Custody of the Holy Land. The letter warned that Gopstein's indictment was necessary considering "the present danger to churches and Christian communities in the country, and the real concern of further harm to them as a result of this incitement." The head of the Custody, which also oversees the Catholic Church's operations in Syria and Jordan, is appointed with papal approval. The Custody was not immediately available for comment.

At a public debate on idolatry at the Wolfson Yeshiva in Jerusalem last week, Gopstein was asked if he supported arson attacks on churches. He replied by citing Moses Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher who Gopstein said advocated the destruction of idolatry. When pushed to give a straight answer, Gopstein said: "Did Maimonides rule that you need to destroy [idolatry] or not? Idolatry needs to be destroyed." The Lehava leader later said that he was not calling on individuals to take matters into their own hands. However, Haaretz reported that Gopstein was defiant following the Vatican's intervention, writing on Facebook: "It's time to remind the Vatican that the time of censorship when they censored Jewish books is gone. Keep your hands away from Torat Yisrael."

The Jerusalem Post reported that Gopstein was detained on Tuesday by Israeli police in connection with the comments. Gopstein's attorney issued a statement claiming that police were "bowing to pressure from the Vatican."

Wadia Abu Nasser, a senior advisor to the Catholic Church in Israel, said that Gopstein's actions were part of a wider trend. "The situation has become intolerable," said Nasser. "Gopstein isn't the only one who incites. He simply marked himself. We are sure this is a trend." He said that Christians in Jerusalem are now spat on in the street and urged the Israeli authorities to indict those responsible.

The letter came after a committee of more than 20 Catholic bishops and archbishops in Israel filed a formal complaint with the police against Gopstein on Friday. The complaint raised concerns over a recent increase in hate crimes and attacks on Christian holy sites—a likely reference to the arson attack on a Galilean church in June, which Christians believe to be the site of Jesus's feeding of the 5,000, also known as the "miracle of the five loaves and two fish." There have been 18 arson cases involving Christian sites in the past four years, according to Christian Today, none of which have yet been resolved.

Lehava is known for opposing interfaith business relations and religious intermarriage, and previously described its mission as the "holy work of saving the daughters of Israel" from marrying Arab husbands. A report by Israel's security service, Shin Bet, concluded last week that there was insufficient evidence to make the group illegal.

Following the arson of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Galilee, Bishop William Shomali, the auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told the charity Aid to the Church in Need that there had been a "real escalation in the anti-Christian violence" in Israel and expressed concern that Jewish extremists "are increasing in number and in the degree of intolerance."

However, according to Ron Gilran, Vice-President of the Levantine Group, an Israel-based security consultancy, Christians are still relatively safe in Israel compared with other parts of the Middle East. "I think that Christian communities in Israel are probably feeling uncomfortable with the recent incidents and especially statements like [those made by] Gopstein," says Gilran. "There have been several such incidents, they have been increasing in the past several years so it's definitely a negative trend but still I don't think such that the Christian communities in Israel are actually fearing for their existence."