by Joseph Puder
Israeli Christians surveying the current situation faced by Christians throughout the Arab Middle East have come to the realization that the Jewish State of Israel is the only country in the region that protects its Christian minority. It prompted a recent conference in Jerusalem titled, “Israeli Christians: Breaking Free? The Advent of an Independent Christian Voice in Israel,” that took place on Monday, September 23, 2013. The speakers included Father (Fr.) Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth, and spiritual leader of the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum; Lt. (IDF) Shaadi Khalloul, spokesman for the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum, and Captain (IDF) Bishara Shlayan, the founder of a Christian Israeli party.
To some people this Israeli-Christian conference was nothing less than historical in nature. Others considered it as perhaps a shift of an ancient paradigm. Whatever one might choose to call this brave Christian group, it is the first time Israeli Christians have declared loud and clear “We are not Arabs, we are Christians who speak Arabic.”
The ongoing turmoil in the Arab Middle East, and the possible breakup of existing states such as Syria and Iraq, have sharpened ethnic and religious consciousness among Christians and Kurds, who seek to retain their identity. That is also true of Lebanese Christians who reject the notion of being Arab. 1,400 years of Arab conquest and subjugation obscured the fact that Arabism and Islam were imposed in the Seventh Century C.E. on the non-Arab majority of people of the Middle East by hordes of Arab raiders from the Arabian Peninsula.
Forced into the language and culture of the conquering Arabs, millions of Aramaic-speaking people adopted Arabic. Further millions were either forced to accept Islam by the sword, or in order to maintain status and position, sought conversion to Islam. In the intervening centuries those who stuck to their identity as Christians and Jews were persecuted, or at best tolerated as the “people of the Book.” Christians and Jews were “dhimified,” namely, second-class citizens, who became dependent on the protection of a benevolent Muslim Monarch or Sheikh. It is this legacy of cowering before the intimidating power of the Muslim majority demanding Christian loyalty in exchange for protection from persecution that made Christians in the Middle East cast away their non-Arab identities. Thus, most non-Arab Christian Egyptian Copts, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians somehow became Arabs.
Keeping in mind the history of Christians in the region, and speaking first, Fr. Naddaf declared, “I am here to open the public’s eyes, if we want to refrain from lying to our own souls and to the general public, we must say clearly and unwaveringly: enough!” Fr. Naddaf went on to say, “The Christian public wants to integrate into Israeli society, against the wishes of its old leadership. There are those who keep pushing us to the margins, keeping us the victims of a nationalism (Arab nationalism) that is not our own, and of a conflict that has nothing to do with us.”
Fr. Naddaf has been condemned and ostracized by the Christian establishment, and particularly by the higher clergy. He and his friends have received death threats from Arab politicians. Fr. Naddaf’s “sins” include his support for young Israeli Christians joining the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or their performing national service. Fr. Naddaf is a unique and special friend of the Jewish state in a region where Christian clergy gain legitimacy only when they support their Arab state’s anti-Israel propaganda. Often times this is expressed in the World Council of Churches and Middle East Council of Churches condemnation of Israel for alleged oppression of Palestinians.
At the conference, Fr. Naddaf articulated the deep connections the Christians have to the land of Israel. He referred to the fact that here in Israel Jesus Christ’s doctrine first emerged. He pointed out that the Christian faith came out of the Jewish faith and its biblical roots. He quoted the founder of the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum, Maj. Ihab Shlayan who said, “The Christians will not be made into hostages, or allow themselves to be controlled by those who wish to impose their nationality, religion and way of life upon us. We will not agree to hide behind the groups that control the streets. We want to live in Israel — brothers in arms and brothers in peace. We want to stand guard and serve as the first line of defense in this Holy Land, the Land of Israel.”
In closing, Fr. Naddaf said, “We have broken through the barrier of fear. The time has come to prove our loyalty, pay our dues and demand our rights.” Despite the hardships he and his group of Christians face, he is committed to continue his work on behalf of Christian integration into Israeli society. “Because the State of Israel is our heart, Israel is a holy state, a strong state, and its people, Jews and Christians alike are united under one covenant.”
Next to speak was Lt. Shaadi Khalloul of Gush Halav (Jish), a mixed Maronite-Christian and Jewish village in the Galilee. He has fought the Israeli Ministry of Interior to recognize his community as Aramaic Christians. An officer in the IDF Paratroopers Brigade, Khalloul believes that the way to integrate into Israeli society is through serving in the IDF, which he describes as a “melting pot.” Another way is through education. It seems that Israel’s Christian population is unaware of its own history, and has adopted the history of the Arabs and Islam. Khalloul said, “The typical Christian student thinks he belongs to the Arab people and the Islamic nation, instead of speaking to the people of whom he truly shares his roots – the Jewish people, whose origins are in the land of Israel.”
Remarking on the notion of a “state of all its citizens’ vs. a Jewish-democratic state, Khalloul said that he preferred a Jewish state that takes care of its citizens over a state governed by all its citizens, without a Jewish identity.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Christians comprised over 20% of the population in the Middle East. Today, they account for less than 5%. The one place where the Christian community has seen growth is in Israel. In 1948, the Christian community numbered 34,000. In 2013, it stood at over 158,000. Although the annual growth rate among Christian Israelis is low (1.3%) due to its urban concentration, high academic achievements, late marriages and low birthrates, the community’s future is far more secure than elsewhere in the Middle East.
It may only be a small group of Israeli Christians that have broken free and are seeking a new direction for the Christian community that is threatened throughout the region. It is nevertheless, a brave new start that is bound to gain steam as Christians in particular are victimized throughout the region by radicalized Muslim majorities.
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