The Israeli Jewish Rabbi Benzi Gopstein has said that Christian churches in Israel must be burnt because Christians worship idols and idols must be destroyed.
Gopstein, the head of Lehava group, made his remarks at a panel discussion for Jewish yeshiva students when asked by a fellow panellist if he believed burning down churches in Israel was justified.
“Did the Rambam [Maimonides] rule to destroy [idol worship] or not? Idol worship must be destroyed. It’s simply yes – what’s the question?” Gopstein told the panel.
His comment alarmed his questioner Benny Rabinovich, a journalist, who told him: "Benzi, I must say I’m really shocked by what you’re saying here. You are essentially saying we must go out and burn down churches. You’re saying something insane here.”
Told by another panellist, Moshe Klein, that the discussion was being filmed and that his remarks could lead to his arrest, Gopstein answered: “That’s the last thing that concerns me. If this is truth, I’m prepared to sit in jail 50 years for it.”
Gopstein later tried to evade accusations of inciting his followers to fire-raise, saying it was the government's responsibility to carry out what he presented as a religious teaching of the 12th century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides.
In 2015, Shin Bet - Israel's domestic intelligence agency - concluded that there are no legal grounds for outlawing Lehava, despite a request from the then Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon to consider doing so.
Lehava - whose name means "flame"- regularly 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 group held a demonstration at which members chanted "death to the Arabs" outside a wedding between a Muslim and Jewish woman who had converted to Islam in 2014.