The Vatican, the Catholic Church’s highest authority, called for an Israeli far-right leader to be indicted for encouraging his followers to burn down churches in Israel.
Attorney Farid Joubran, representing the Vatican-affiliated Custodia da Terra Santa order, said that it was necessary to indict Benzion Gopshtein "out of consideration of the public interest and of the present danger to churches and Christian communities in the country, and the real concern of further harm to them as a result of this incitement," according to Haaretz.
At a panel in Jerusalem last week, Gopshtein was asked if he is “in favor of burning churches in the Land of Israel,” to which he reportedly answered: “Idol worship must be destroyed. It’s simply yes – what’s the question?” When a moderator told him the event was being filmed, he responded: “That’s the last thing that concerns me. If this is truth, I’m prepared to sit in jail 50 years for it.”
Gopshtein is the leader of Lehava, a far-right Jewish radical group that opposes the presence, assimilation and interfaith marriages of non-Jews in Israel. In 2014, three Lehava members were arrested and charged with arson involving an Arab-Jewish school in Jerusalem. Another arson attack at a holy Christian site in Israel in June was blamed on the group, leading to 16 Jewish settlers in the West Bank being detained
In January, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon called on his department to designate Lehava as a terror group after over a dozen members were arrested for incitement to violence. However, last week, the country’s Shin Bet security service said that the group is not a terrorist organization.
The letter from Joubran marks another step taken by the Vatican after officials from the Catholic Church in Israel filed a complaint with the police over the weekend. Over 20 Israeli bishops and archbishops expressed their concern against anti-Christian hate crimes in Israel, and called on authorities to take action against Gopshtein.
"This isn't a time for procrastination, delays and helplessness! This is a time for determined and uncompromising action by law enforcement authorities under your leadership. The writing is on the wall, and a cost to human life, with consequences which cannot be foretold, isn't a question of if but of when," Joubran reportedly added, in the letter.