TABGHA, Israel (Christian Examiner) -- A devastating arson attack gutted part of an ancient church in Israel located where Jesus is said to have performed the miracle of fishes and loaves that fed 5,000 men and their families on the coast of the Sea of Galilee.
Forced to close its doors for several days after the June 18 fire, the Church of Multiplication reopened Sunday as thousands who drew to the site in support were told to "replace the terrible fire with the fire of God's love and forgiveness."
"We are Christian and must react like Christians," the head of the Order which oversees the church, Father Gregory Collins, told an estimated 3,000 Israeli Christians gathered to protest the attack.
Hebrew graffiti at the fire site stirred suspicion that arson was responsible for the blaze which caused substantial damage to the church's prayer room, guest room, and warehouse -- and sent two people to the hospital for smoke inhalation, The Guardian and other sources reported.
The red spray-painted graffiti on the fifty-century exterior of a church wall referenced a passage from a Jewish prayer condemning idol worship and said: "Idol worshippers will be annihilated."
Police initially arrested 16 Jewish seminary students suspected for reportedly participating in the crime. However, they were later released for lack of evidence tying them to the scene.
Prayer books and Bibles were also destroyed in the fire which began in the middle of the night. A Byzantine mosaic floor from a fifth-century church that once stood under the current structure survived the attack.
The floor is that which contains the mosaic of the fish and loaves that is oft repeated on items from plates to paintings and other keepsakes of Israel and Holy Land. It is further inside the church conclave.
Collins told The Guardian the location was a traditional pilgrimage site for Christians who travel to the Holy Land, and more than 5,000 people visit every day.
"It's deplorable, absolutely deplorable. I consider such an attack to be not just an attack on a religious site, on a sanctuary, but also on one of the most visited places in Israel," he said. "It is also an attack on freedom of speech, democracy and the right to live here."
Various Israeli news sources reported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the act and pledged that the responsible parties for the "despicable crime" would "face the full force of the law.
"Such terrible desecration of an ancient and holy place of prayer is an attack on the very fabric of life in our country, where people of different faiths seek to live together in harmony and mutual tolerance and respect," he said.