Holy Land Catholic body urges action against Jewish extremists

Jerusalem (AFP) - The body in charge of Roman Catholic properties in the Holy Land has called for legal action against a Jewish extremist group and its leader after he condoned burning churches.

"The danger and threats to the Church and to Christians in Israel are imminent," the Custodian of the Holy Land wrote in a plea to Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein seen by AFP on Monday.

The letter called on Israel to take immediate action to outlaw the extremist Lehava organisation and prosecute its leader Benzi Gopstein.

The letter followed attacks, allegedly by 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.

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.

"To our utter dismay, recent years have witnessed an alarming and frightening increase in violent attacks against Christians, Christianity and Christian institutions in Israel," the letter said, denouncing an "atmosphere of de facto impunity".

It called for a halt to "the ferocious campaign of religious incitement and racist violence against the Church and its institutions in Israel".

During a debate with Talmudic students, Gopstein last week defended the idea of burning churches, invoking a mediaeval commandment to destroy idols, according to a recording aired in the media.

Lehava is a far-right group which 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 the reported comments.