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The violent attacks on religious sites in Israel are appalling

The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish (often shorted to the Church of the Multiplication) stands in Tabgha, Israel, on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The modern church rests on the site of two earlier churches, and marks the site where Jesus is said to have fed five thousand people with a few fish and loaves of bread. A hugely important Christian site, it attracts thousands tourists from over the world every single week.

On Thursday 18 June, the church went up in flames. Police suspect that the arson attack on the church was the latest in a line of hate crimes against non-Jewish targets throughout Israel. A line from the daily Jewish prayer – "the false gods will be eliminated" – was spray-painted on the wall.

Officials in Israel moved quickly to condemn the attack, as did churches and politicians around the world. President Reuven Rivlin spoke of Israel's obligation to protect all holy sites, not just Jewish ones. "Such terrible desecration of an ancient and holy place of prayer is an attack on the very fabric of life in our country," he said. Father Gregory Collins, head of the Benedictine order in Israel, which runs the church, said that this was an "attack on Israeli democracy".

In recent years there has been a surge of so-called "price tag" attacks, which were initially primarily carried out by extremist Jewish settlers against Palestinians and their property in the West Bank. The name suggests that the perpetrators are trying to make sure there's a price for any government action against settler interests. The incidents have gradually spread inside Israel, taking place in Arab villages, mosques, and monasteries. In April last year, a Star of David was spray-painted on the wall of a mosque in the Arab Israeli town of Fureidis, along with the caption "close mosques, not yeshivas". The same month, there were attacks on a Muslim cemetery near Jerusalem and a monastery in Deir Rafat. In September 2012, soon after the government closed two illegal Jewish outposts in the West Bank, a Christian monastery near Jerusalem had its door set on fire. The walls were vandalized with slogans like "Jesus is a monkey".

While most accept that Jewish extremists are responsible, this cannot always be verified, because the perpetrators don't tend to be caught. This was the 18th arson attack against a church or mosque in the last four years; in none of those cases has a single perpetrator been arrested, brought to justice – or even identified. These statistics are shocking enough in themselves, but it's also worth remembering that attacks on places of worship are not limited to arson. The NGO Tag Meir, which was formed to oppose these hate crimes, says that 43 churches and mosques have been desecrated since 2009 – that includes vandalism and graffiti. "Desecrating a church in Israel is as grave as violating a synagogue in Paris or Warsaw," the group wrote on Facebook in the aftermath of the church burning last week.

These attacks on places of worship should be seen within the context of wider violence against Palestinian individuals and property. But there is something particularly shocking about violent attacks on religious sites; freedom of worship is a universal right that is protected in most international treaties and country constitutions. Even states that are defined by their prevailing religion tend to view the holy sites of other faiths as holy and worthy of protection. The state of Israel is no different: there is unequivocal legislation that prohibits vandalising religious sites.

After the mosque vandalism at Fureidis in April last year, then Finance Minister Yair Lapid said that "anyone violating another's place of worship has no respect for his own God." After the monastery attack in 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that "freedom of religion and freedom of worship are among Israel's basic foundations". But for all these condemnations and expressions of support, nothing concrete has changed. The attacks have continued, and the perpetrators have not been caught and punished. This hardly creates a deterrent.

In an editorial on the attack on the Church of the Multiplication, the Haaretz newspaper points out the discrepancy in the government's approach: "it's hard to take seriously the condemnations uttered by the prime minister, cabinet ministers and Knesset members when, at the same time, they give a nod and wink to those who infringe on the state's sovereignty by embarking on private religious and cultural campaigns against Christians and Muslims."

Price tag attacks are hate crimes, pure and simple. They should be prosecuted as such. Any state that fails to protect freedom of worship for all faiths, not just the dominant one, and that fails to effectively police hate crimes against particular communities, cannot justifiably call itself a democracy. Public condemnations are all very well, but the thousands of people who marched near the church on Sunday want to see clear evidence that the state is interested in protecting them.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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