Israeli Christians face an uphill battle against entrenched Arab political interests for equal rights and the ability to proudly serve in the IDF.
You probably haven’t heard this, but increasing numbers of Christians are beginning to view Israel as their welcoming home • As a matter of fact, a small group of brave, ground-breaking young Christians are setting new norms of cooperation and friendship with Israeli Jews, proudly enlisting in the IDF, where they serve side by side with their Jewish peers in defense of their country • They face serious opposition from Arab political interests, but continue to encourage their brethren in uniform
It’s not a good time to be a Christian in the Middle East: a church was recently defaced in Gaza, Syrian Christians are fighting a war of survival against Jihadi groups, the Egyptian Coptic community is at an historic low point, and Nigerian Jihadists have killed over 200 in a vicious series of attacks – including schoolchildren murdered in their beds.
The Jewish State is the one bright spot, where the Christian community is experiencing the beginnings of a renaissance. Christians are increasingly enlisting in the IDF and National Service and fighting for appropriate government representation and equal rights. Among the pioneering voices in the Christian community is head of the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum (ICRF), Father Gabriel Nadaf, whose movement can no longer be ignored.
Shadi Halul, a reserve paratroop officer and the movement’s spokesman, told ‘Mida’ about the recent change in attitude among Israeli Christians:
“In the past, Israeli Christians believed that co-existence with Islam meant identifying as Arabs. But the silencing of Christian identity and keeping it within Church walls didn’t help Christians in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Judaea and Samaria.”
Even Archimandrite Agapios Abu Saad, who is not known for supporting enlistment into the IDF, believes that in light of the failure of Muslim regimes in the region to protect their Christian minorities, the community must change its attitude to Israel, and he even said as much to his followers in a column he published on the site “Calam Al’ul” (The First Word).
The Arab Israelis Object
In their struggle for equal rights, Christian Israelis have discovered that it is not the State that stands in their way. On the contrary: Christians have full backing from the Israeli Government members and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Who, then, is fighting their integration into Israeli society? Arab politicians, members of Communist and Nationalist political parties and Arab MKs, who fight ferociously against Christian enlistment, all while fanning the flames of incitement and hatred against Christians.
One of the leaders of this campaign is Dr. Azmi Hakim, head of the Orthodox Church Council, a long-time political opponent of Father Nadaf. Hakim is supported by MK Mohammad Barakeh and is a member of the Israeli Communist Party. Hakim’s arguments amount to standard clichés such as “the IDF is the army of occupation and killing,” and that “the Palestinian Christians within the Green Line are an inseparable part of the Palestinian people.”
In the true spirit of Bolshevism, Hakim attacks Father Nadaf personally. He even declared on his facebook page that “Father Nadaf will end up in the trash heap of history, with the rest of the garbage.” In an interview to Israeli Channel One, Hakim argued that “because I am the Chairman of the Executive Committee, only I have the right to speak for the Christian community of Nazareth and Upper Nazareth.”
These arguments amuse Shadi Halul: “It’s known that a communist can’t be a Christian, there’s no such thing as a communist Christian, after all the communists have no religion,” he said. “We are the true Christian voice, and only when we started to have ourselves heard did pan-Arab and communist activists suddenly start to identify as Christian. They never did so before; they’re only doing it to torpedo what we’re doing.”
Anti-Christian Violence and Incitement
Hakim’s incitement has exposed the Forum members to daily violence and threats. Im Tirzu, which has followed the forum almost from the beginning, published a document cataloguing the many cases of anti-Christian incitement and violence and demanding that the police increase its efforts to stop them.
Among the many cases of incitement are a poem directed at Father Nadaf in which they sing: “Your end is death” and an article on the site “Bukra” (tomorrow), in which Qa’id Atiyah appealed to the residents of Afia: “We trust our youth to clear out this filth from Afia.” Sometimes threats come from the criminal underworld. Thus, after one of the priests of Nazareth met with the head of the Israeli National Service Administration, his tires were slashed and a bloody rag placed on one of his house’s windows.
The message is clear: this will end in murder.
Under the Education Ministry’s Nose
One of the most scandalous parts of this intimidation campaign is the Education Ministry’s policy. Christian youth wishing to enlist suffer most of the threats and intimidation within public school walls. For instance, the day after a recruitment drive in Upper Nazareth, some teachers in Nazareth schools conducted a discussion with their students under the heading “Why it is a disaster to enlist in the IDF.” Students wishing to enlist were the focus of the discussion and were subjected to public humiliation and mocking.
There are those who point the finger at Education Minister Shai Piron. Amit Barak, a social activist who volunteers at the Forum, told ‘Mida’ that incitement against enlisting Christians continues to take place in the educational system. “The Education Ministry is avoiding having to deal with the problem,” Barak said sadly. “Ever since Education Minister Piron took office, we appealed to him many times, but he never responded.” According to Barak, the Chairman of the Education Committee Amram Mitzna is also not acting to eradicate the problem, even though he actually met with Forum members.
MK Yariv Levin, the Coalition chairman who initiated the amendment to the Employment (Equal Opportunities) Law, 1988, which states the Christians would not be represented on the Employment and Welfare Committee by an (overall) Arab representative, stated to ‘Mida’ that “the State of Israel needs to ensure that there will be encouragement to enlist in the education system and not propaganda against enlistment.” Additionally, Levin believes that the State should “see to the safety of those that enlist, so that they can enter their towns and villages with their head held high, wearing the IDF uniform.”
Levin said that he appealed many times to the Education Minister and the Public Security Minister about the incitement, but although there was “some improvement” according to him, he adds that “it’s still not enough and there’s more to do.”
The Arab MKs’ Struggle for Survival
The incitement does not stop at the gates of the Knesset. When the subject of Christian enlistment came on its agenda, MK Hanin Zoabi gave an inflammatory speech in which she compared Levin’s proposed amendment to colonialism and argued that its purpose is to repress Palestinian identity. She also added that “part of the Zionist project’s goal is to split our identity.” Zoabi also personally attacked Shabi Halul, threatening that he wouldn’t be able to express his opinion in the streets of Arab villages. During the debate, MK Jamal Zahlaka turned to Halul and said: “Who are you to speak in the name of Christians? You’re the enemy!”
MK Basal Ghattas, who along with Zoabi leads the incitement campaign against Christians, even appealed to the Pope to help him prevent the enlistment of Christians into the IDF, promising to persecute Father Nadaf and have him defrocked. Coincidentally or not, a few days after this declaration, Father Nadaf’s son was attacked and lightly wounded.
“MKs from the Arab parties are simply hysterical over these moves, because they destroy the false idea that all (non-Jewish) minorities are united in hating Israel, something which is entirely not true,” explains MK Levin. “It exposes the fakery of MKs from Arab parties, who represent their communities in a bullying and undemocratic manner and don’t represent large parts of the Christian community and even the Muslim community.”
The Silence of Human Rights Groups
The deafening silence of human rights groups bothers members of the Forum, who are left to fight their brave fight alone. Halul says that although they’ve turned to bodies from all across the political spectrum, human rights organizations didn’t give them the time of day. “Precisely those who deal in human rights pass on the message that human rights are only important for Arabs, and there are none for Zionists who don’t identify as Arabs,” he says with disappointment.
In spite of all this, Shadi Halul remains optimistic and is hopeful about the future:
“We may represent a weak population without public representation, but we express the Christian community’s deepest-held feelings: no Christian with a head on his shoulders will refuse equal rights, integration into society and the chance for a better future. Today most Christians are silent and waiting to see which way things will go. If we win, most of the Christians public will happily enlist.”
Halul believes that the appropriate response to incitement, alongside enforcement of the law, is intensive promotion of Christian integration into Israeli society. “The state must act and open doors for Christians who want to integrate.”
To sum up, he asks:
“Do me a favor, don’t write “Christian Arabs.” Just write Christians or Aramaic Christians, at most write Arabic-speaking Christians. Our Aramaic nationality is undeniable, it’s an historic fact. The Arabic conquest forced Arabic on us, just as it did to the Eastern Jews.”
It turns out that the Christian fight is not just for equal rights but also historic justice.
English translation by Avi Woolf.