An arson attack caused extensive damage to the interior and exterior of the Church of Loaves and Fishes on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel on Thursday, the fire brigade said.
The church, which Christians believe is where Jesus performed the Miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes, lies on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and is a traditional site of pilgrimage in the Holy Land.
A spokesman for the fire brigade said a preliminary investigation showed the blaze broke out in several places inside the church, evidence that it was started deliberately.
The nationalist crimes unit of the Israeli police's West Bank settlement division is investigating the incident. Police said they initially arrested 16 youths, all religious Jewish seminary students from West Bank settlements, but released them shortly after. Their lawyer, Itamar Ben Gvir, told Army Radio the police had no evidence against the youths and that they were under suspicion simply for looking like young settlers.
Father Matthias Karl, a German monk from the church, said a souvenir shop, an office for pilgrims and a meeting room were badly damaged, and bibles and prayer books were destroyed in the fire.
"It's totally destroyed. The fire was very active," he said.
A monk and a church volunteer were hospitalized from smoke inhalation, but the prayer area of the church was unaffected by the fire, he said.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said investigators were at the site and Hebrew graffiti had been found, which led police and fire service investigators to suspect that the fire had been set deliberately.
"Firefighters arrived at the scene at around 3:30 am (12:30 am GMT) and it was put out, but extensive damage was caused to the church both inside and out and Hebrew graffiti was found, which has led to suspicions that the fire might have been caused deliberately," Rosenfeld said.
The graffiti, on a limestone wall in clear red spray paint denounced the worship of idols.
The door to the monks' living quarters has been set ablaze, and the fire then spread to another area down the hall from there. Perpetrators also attempted to start the fire where the graffiti was found.
Firefighters were able to start the blaze before it reached the main prayer hall, where the ceiling is made of wood.
Passersby said unknown perpetrators have been covering the crosses on signs directing to the church for a long period of time before the blaze.
"We still don't know what happened, we're in shock," said one of the other monks. "I woke up at around 4 am because of the noise and saw the flames. I rushed to the church because I knew two of our friends were inside."
"I still don't understand what happened here," he went on to say. "We've never had such incidents. We're a place of peace, love and openness. Everything here is always open to whoever wants to come - maybe that is the problem."
The Rabbis for Human Rights group said there have been 43 hate crime attacks against churches, mosques and monasteries in Israel, the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2009.
Dozens of arrests have been made in such cases, but there have been few indictments and convictions, with police and prosecutors acknowledging that the young age of many of the suspected perpetrators has led courts to show leniency.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely condemned Thursday's church burning and said Israel respects freedom of worship for all religions.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan also decried the suspected arson, saying "This is a cowardly and despicable act, which I fiercely condemn."
"We will not allow for someone to break the coexistence of the different religions and cultures in Israel. Any act against religious tolerance is hurting the most important value in the State of Israel, and we have zero patience for acts of this type," the minister said.
Last year, a group of mostly Jewish youth attacked the Church of the Multiplication's outdoor prayer area along the Sea of Galilee, Father Matthias said, pelting worshippers with stones, destroying a cross and throwing benches into the lake.
The Roman Catholic church is a modern church was constructed in the 1980s on the remains of a fifth-century Byzantine church in Tabgha on the shore of the Kinneret in northern Israel. It is overseen by the Benedictine Order.
Its Byzantine mosaic floor draws thousands of visitors of all faiths each year, Father Matthias said.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this story.