Restored Church of Loaves and Fishes Reopened in Interfaith Ceremony After Arson

“Except Hashem build the house, they labour in vain that build it; except Hashem keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” Psalms 127:1 (The Israel Bible™)

President Reuven Rivlin attended an interfaith meeting on Sunday morning at the site of the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes commemorating the completion of the restoration of the building after it was vandalized and set ablaze by arsonists nearly two years ago.

“The last time I was here, we stood together and looked at the burnt walls and the terrible graffiti,” the president said, referring to the June, 2015 attack on the iconic church in Northern Israel.

“Today, I visit here again, and see the renewal of this historic, special, and holy place. I want to thank all the people who worked hard to restore this place, and to say clearly that hate cannot win.”

Also in attendance at the event were President Rivlin’s wife, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Ambassador of Germany Dr. Clemens von Goetze, Sheikh Muwaffak Tarīf, and Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, as well as the head of the Jordan Valley Local Council, Idan Greenbaum.

The Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha after the arson attack (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Rivlin emphasized that Jews, Christians and people of all faith suffer together when equality and tolerance are compromised, but noted that freedom of religion is a cherished principle in the Jewish state.

“Close to us is the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee: a source of water and life for the people of the Holy Land for many generations. When it is full of water, we all benefit. When it is empty, we all suffer. We are bound together. We are all equal before God, and equal before the law,” he said.

“Friends, the State of Israel is committed – deeply committed – to the freedom of religion and of worship for all religions and believers. We stand up for religious freedom because, as a people, we know very well what it means to suffer religious persecution. And we stand up for religious freedom because we are a democratic state – who believe in the rights for everyone to worship God according to their belief.”

He referenced the Ten Commandments, a shared foundational religious text for Jews and Christians, as the basis of multifaith understanding.

“The Ten Commandments – that are dear to all of us – appear on two stone tablets, which Moses carried. The first stone has the commandments that talk about our relationship with God. The second stone has the commandments that talk about our relationship with the people around us. This is the balance we all must keep: to be true to our faith and to be true to our beliefs, but never forget our duty to our fellow man. This is the essence of the State of Israel.”

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He concluded by saying, “We do not need to look very far to see what the alternative is. People being killed in a terrible war, because of their faith. To those who say that God wants us to kill, I say – we all say together – that God wants us to live. May we all live not just side by side, but together, in mutual respect, and understanding.”

The Archbishop of Cologne Cardinal Rainer Woelki welcomed the president and participants and thanked Rivlin for his office’s work in helping to restore the church. “Today is a time of great joy and friendship,” he said, noting, “Many have contributed in different ways to the renovation of the site here at Tabgha. Mr. President, It is a special honor to welcome you on your second visit here. I know that you and your office have been very important in helping the recovery since the fire.”

He added, “It was very warming to hear from the local people how, after the arson attack, so many people across many religions in the Holy Land came to show their solidarity.”

President Rivlin with Sheikh Muwaffak Tarīf at the restored Church of the Loaves and Fishes. (GPO/Mark Neiman)

Sheikh Muwaffak Tarīf, spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel, also spoke, declaring, “Our standing here today, together with other faiths and communities, with the President, and this celebratory event – this is the eternal answer to all those who wish to harm the unity of the peoples of faith in the Holy Land and to bring about a rift between the faiths.”

He ended with a strong message of solidarity. “We especially must say in the clearest possible way, that we will not support any who wish to destroy the connection between the faiths. We will be a bridge of peace, unity, and love.”

Germany’s ambassador to Israel, Dr. Clemens von Goetzem, thanked all those who had helped restore the site and recognized Israel’s commitment to ensuring that “the places of worship of all faiths in this country will be protected as will the rights of all the faiths of the Holy Land.”