Israel police quiz Jewish extremist who defends torching churches

AFP , Tuesday 11 Aug 2015

Israel police on Tuesday summoned for questioning a Jewish extremist leader who condoned torching churches amid an uproar over recent hate crimes, including the deadly firebombing of a Palestinian home.

Benzi Gopstein, who leads far-right group Lehava, has not been linked to any recent attacks, but his comments regarding churches came at a time of heightened sensitivity over Jewish extremism and drew outrage from Catholic officials.

"Benzi Gopstein has been called for investigation at the offices of the nationalist crime unit," police spokeswoman Luba Samri said in a statement.

"He will be questioned about his comments regarding the burning of churches."

During a debate last week with religious students, Gopstein defended the idea of burning churches, invoking a mediaeval Jewish commandment to destroy places of idol-worship, according to a widely broadcast recording of the event.

A formal complaint to Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein was later filed by the body in charge of Roman Catholic properties in the Holy Land.

In a letter seen by AFP on Monday, the Custodian of the Holy Land called for Gopstein to be prosecuted and for Lehava to be outlawed.

"Our client has been summoned to interrogation in the wake of pressure from the Vatican," Gopstein's lawyer Itamar Ben Gvir said on Israeli public radio. "I ask myself what the next step will be. Will the pope decide to file charges?"

Gopstein, who lives in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, has previously faced police questioning. In 2014, he was one of 10 Lehava members detained over an arson attack on a Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem.

His summons on Tuesday follows attacks, attributed to Jewish extremists, on Palestinians and Christian sites in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

An 18-month-old Palestinian child and his father died after alleged Jewish extremists firebombed their home at the end of last month.

Hours earlier in a separate incident, an ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed six people at a Gay Pride march in Jerusalem, killing a 16-year-old girl.

On June 18, an arson attack occurred at a shrine on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel where Jesus is believed to have performed the miracle of loaves and fishes.

Israeli prosecutors have charged three Israeli extremists in that case.

Lehava claims to fight for Jewish identity, in particular by opposing marriages between Jews and gentiles.

A Roman Catholic official said on Sunday that an assembly of churches in the region had filed a complaint with police over Gopstein's comments.

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