Lehava director Bentzi Gopshtain
Lehava director Bentzi Gopshtain Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

A representative of the Vatican in Israel on Sunday contacted Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein in a letter demanding he indict Bentzi Gopshtain, director of the Lehava anti-assimilation group, for comments he made on a recent panel on Jewish law.

"The writing is on the wall and the attack on people that will cause unknown results is not a matter of 'if,' but of 'when,'" wrote the representative.

The letter comes following a complaint submitted by the Catholic Church in Israel on behalf of the Vatican, which accused Gopshtain of "incitement" to violence - just after the Israel Security Agency (ISA) last Tuesday admitted that Lehava is perfectly legal.

The Vatican's call to arrest Gopshtain focuses on statements made when he took part in a panel debating Jewish law last Tuesday, during which he said he supported burning churches, in an answer he claimed was based on a ruling by the famed 12th century CE Jewish scholar Rambam (Maimonides).

Explaining his comments, Gopshtain said afterwards, "the law is straightforward: Rambam's interpretation is that one must burn idolatry. There’s not a single rabbi that would deliberate that fact. I expect the government of Israel to carry that out."

In the panel the Lehava director said he was not afraid of being arrested for his comments. He later elaborated, saying, "I said that for speaking the truth, I am prepared to sit in prison. And I emphasized that I don’t burn and won’t go and burn churches."

Gopshtain responded to the Vatican letter to Weinstein, saying, "I view the involvement of the Vatican on Halakhic (Jewish legal - ed.) matters as very serious. The period of the censor when they burned Jewish books has ended."

Lehava was vindicated last week by the ISA after Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (Likud) called for an investigation into the group last December, following a police crackdown on vague charges of "incitement" that the court threw out while ruling Lehava's activities are legal.

The ISA admission also came after Opposition chairperson MK Yitzhak Herzog last Saturday called to brand Lehava a "terrorist organization."

As for the Vatican, in late June it signed its historic first accord with "Palestine," even though it has yet to sign such an accord with Israel. 

The accord comes despite the fact that Christians have been systematically persecuted under the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has caused the Christian population in Bethlehem to nearly disappear from 60% in 1990 to 15% last year.