The leader of an Israeli extremist group has expressed his support for the recent arson attacks on Christian churches in the region, asserting that "idol worship" must be destroyed.
During a panel discussion on idol worship held Tuesday at the Wolfson Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Benzi Gopstein, head of the Lehava anti-assimilation group, was asked by journalist Benny Rabinowitz of the Yated Ne'eman newspaper if he was in favor of burning Christian churches in Israel.
Gopstein first attempted to evade the question, saying it was the government's responsibility to carry out what he presented as a religious teaching of the 12th century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides.
However, Rabinowitz pushed further, saying, "I asked you," to which Gopstein answered, "Of course I do...Idolatry needs to be destroyed."
Rabinowitz then expressed his outrage over Gopstein's statement, saying: "I am truly shocked at what you are saying here, which is basically that we need to get out and burn churches. This is insane."
Told by another panelist, Moshe Klein, rabbi of Israel's Haddash medical centers, that his remarks could lead to his arrest, Gopstein responded: "That's the last thing that concerns me. If this is truth, I'm prepared to sit in jail 50 years for it."
He later backpedalled slightly, stating, "I stressed several times I was not calling to take operative steps, but that this is the Rambam's approach and that it's the responsibility of the government, not of individuals."
According to USA Today, authorities are cracking down on Jewish extremism following last week's two terrorist attacks at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade and the Palestinian village of Duma in the West Bank: An ultra-Orthodox man stabbed marchers at the Pride Parade, killing one and injuring five. Hours later, Jewish extremists carried out an arson attack that killed a Palestinian baby, critically injuring his parents and brother.
In July, three Jewish suspects were arrested in connection with the arson of a world famous 5th century church, the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
The fire gutted part of the church, and two people were injured. According to the Huffington Post, the ancient church is one of the most popular stops for Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, as it is the site of what Christianity reveres as Jesus's miracle of the feeding of the 5,000.
A verse from a Hebrew prayer denouncing the worship of "false gods" was reportedly spray-painted in red on one of the church walls. At the time, Israel's security agency, the Shin Bet, said the men responsible were followers of an "extremist Jewish ideology" that believes "only someone who fights Christianity can call himself a Jew."
Matthias Carl Benedictina, one of the church's priests, also revealed that this was not the only attack against Christianity in the region, as there have been over 50 acts of violence against Christian institutions by extremist groups in Israel in the past three years.
According to Israeli news channel i24, Lehava - whose name means "flame" but is also the Hebrew acronym for "preventing assimilation in the Holy Land", often holds open gatherings in Jerusalem's Zion Square, where members distribute literature warning of the dangers of relationships between Jewish women and Arab men.
The report also notes that Gopstein was arrested along with 20 other Lehava members for suspected incitement to violence last last year, but has so far not been charged.