Monday, December 30, 2013


Wall Street Journal

Israel's Christian 


A Controversial New Movement Wants to 

Cooperate More Closely With the Jewish State


Dec. 27, 2013 

As Christmas neared, an 85-foot-high tree presided over the 
little square in front of the Greek Orthodox Church of the 
Annunciation in Nazareth. Kindergarten children with Santa Claus 
hats entered the church and listened to their teacher explain in 
Arabic the Greek inscriptions on the walls, while a group of 
Russian pilgrims knelt on their knees and whispered in prayer. 
In Nazareth's old city, merchants sold the usual array of 
Christmas wares.

This year, however, the familiar rhythms of Christmas season 
in the Holy Land have been disturbed by a new development: 
the rise of an independent voice for Israel's Christian community, 
which is increasingly trying to assert its separate identity. For 
decades, Arab Christians were considered part of Israel's 
sizable Palestinian minority, which comprises both Muslims 
and Christians and makes up about a fifth of the country's 
citizens, according to the Israeli government.

But now, an informal grass-roots movement, prompted in 
part by the persecution of Christians elsewhere in the region 
since the Arab Spring, wants to cooperate more closely with 
Israeli Jewish society—which could mean a historic change in 
attitude toward the Jewish state. 

"Israel is my country, and I 
want to defend it," says Henry Zaher, an 18-year-old 
Christian from the village of Reineh who was visiting Nazareth. 
"The Jewish state is good for us."

LOOKING UP: Celebrating Christmas in Nazareth, 
December 2012 Reuters

The Christian share of Israel's population has decreased 
over the years—from 2.5% in 1950 to 1.6% today, according 
to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics—because of migration 
and a low birthrate. Of Israel's 8 million citizens, about 
130,000 are Arabic-speaking Christians (mostly Greek 
Catholic and Greek Orthodox), and 1.3 million are 
Arab Muslims.

In some ways, Christians in Israel more closely resemble 
their Jewish neighbors than their Muslim ones, says 
Amnon Ramon, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of 
Jerusalem and a specialist on Christians in Israel at the 
Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. In a recent book, 
he reports that Israeli Christians' median age is 30, 
compared with 31 for Israeli Jews and only 19 for 
Israeli Muslims. 

Israeli Christian women marry later than 
Israeli Muslims, have significantly fewer children and participate 
more in the workforce. Unemployment is lower among 
Israeli Christians than among Muslims, and life expectancy 
is higher. Perhaps most strikingly, Israeli Christians actually 
surpass Israeli Jews in educational achievement.

As a minority within a minority, Christians in Israel have 
historically been in a bind. Fear of being considered 
traitors often drove them to proclaim their full support 
for the Palestinian cause. Muslim Israeli leaders say that 
all Palestinians are siblings and deny any Christian-Muslim 
rift. But in mixed Muslim-Christian cities such as Nazareth, 
many Christians say they feel outnumbered and insecure.

"There is a lot of fear among Christians from Muslim reprisals,
" says Dr. Ramon. "In the presence of a Muslim student in one 
of my classes, a Christian student will never say the same things
 he would say were the Muslim student not there."

"Many Christians think like me, but they keep silent," says 
the Rev. Gabriel Naddaf, who backs greater Christian 
integration into the Jewish state. "They are simply too afraid." 

In his home in Nazareth, overlooking the fertile hills of the 
Galilee, the 40-year-old former spokesman of the Greek Orthodox 
Patriarchate in Jerusalem is tall and charismatic, dressed in a 
spotless black cassock. "Israel is my country," he says. "We 
enjoy the Israeli democracy and have to respect it and fight for it."

That is the idea behind the new Forum for Drafting the 
Christian Community, which aims to increase the number of 
Christians joining the Israel Defense Forces. 

It is an extremely 
delicate issue: Israeli Arabs are generally exempt from military duty, 
because the state doesn't expect them to fight their brethren among 
the Palestinians or in neighboring Arab countries. Israeli Palestinians, 
who usually don't want to enlist, say they often face discrimination
 in employment and other areas because they don't serve.

"We were dragged into a conflict that wasn't ours," says 
Father Naddaf. "Israel takes care of us, and if not Israel, 
who will defend us? We love this country, and we see the 
army as a first step in becoming more integrated with the state."

According to Shadi Khaloul, a forum spokesperson, the total 
number of Christians serving in the Israeli military has more than 
quadrupled since 2012, from 35 to nearly 150. This may seem a 
drop in the ocean, but it was enough to enrage many Palestinian 
Israelis. Father Naddaf says that his car's tires were punctured 
and that he received death threats, worrying him enough that he 
got bodyguards. 

Hanin Zoabi, an Arab-Muslim member of the 
Israeli parliament, wrote Father Naddaf a public letter calling him 
a collaborator and accusing him of putting young Christians 
"in danger." "Arab Palestinians, regardless of their religion, should 
not join the Israeli army," Ms. Zoabi told me. "We are a national 
group, not a religious one. Any attempt to enlist Christians is part 
of a strategy of divide-and-rule."

Many Arab Christians don't see it that way. "We are not mercenaries," 
says Mr. Khaloul, who served as a captain in an IDF paratrooper 
brigade. "We want to defend this country together with the Jews. 
We see what is happening these days to Christians around us—
in Iraq, Syria and Egypt."

Since the Arab revolutions began in Tunisia in 2011, many 
Christians in the region have felt isolated and jittery. Coptic 
churches have been attacked in Egypt, and at least 26 Iraqis 
leaving a Catholic church in Baghdad on Christmas Day were
 killed by a car bomb. Islamists continue to threaten to enforce 
Shariah law wherever they gain control.

The Christian awakening in Israel goes beyond joining the IDF. 
Some Israeli Christian leaders now demand that their history and 
heritage be taught in state schools. "Children in Arab schools in 
Israel learn only Arab-Muslim history," says a report prepared 
by Mr. Khaloul and submitted to Israel's Ministry of Education, 
"and this causes the obliteration of Christian identity."

Some Israeli Christians even recently established a new 
political party, headed by Bishara Shlayan, a stocky, blue-eyed 
former captain in the Israeli navy who told me that he once beat 
up an Irish sailor in Londonderry who called him an "[expletive] 

The new party is puckishly called B'nai Brith ("Children of 
the Covenant"), and Shlayan says it will have Jewish as well as 
Christian members. Nazareth's mayor, Ramez Jaraisy, recently 
told the Times of Israel that Shlayan was a "collaborator" with 
the Israeli authorities.

"The current Arab political establishment only brought us hate and 
rifts," says Mr. Shlayan. "The Arab-Muslim parties didn't take care 
of us. We are not brothers with the Muslims; brothers take care of 
each other." 

Mr. Shlayan, who advocates better education, housing 
and employment for Israeli Christians, says he also dreams of turning 
Nazareth into an even busier tourist spot by erecting the world's 
biggest statue of Jesus.

Should this Christian awakening succeed, it would be yet another
 notable shift in the balance of power among religious groups 
in the Middle East.

—Mr. Schwartz is a former staff writer and senior editor 
for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

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Thanks for sharing. Blessings on your head from the Lord Jesus, Yeshua HaMashiach.

Steve Martin
Love For His People
Charlotte, NC USA