The Middle East is being cleansed of Christians. In the beginning of the 20th century, Christians constituted some 20% of the population in the region. Today, it’s 4% and falling. 77% of Iraq’s Christians have fled since 2000, in addition to the thousands who were murdered or forcibly expelled. 450,000 Christians have fled Syria since the civil war began in 2011, for fear they would share the same fate.
Since 2000, over seventy-seven per cent of Iraq’s seven hundred thousand Christians have fled. In Syria where there were two million Christians, there are now less than a quarter of a million. In Egypt the Christian Coptic community suffers from daily persecution and terror. Similarly, Christians under the Palestinian Authority also suffer from persecution.
Those Christians in the Middle East who can escape persecution at the hands of Muslim extremists have fled. Those who remain exist as second– if not third–class citizens to their Muslim rulers. They face financial discrimination, physical threats, and the most heinous of crimes – rapes, executions, and forced conversions. Why? Because they believe in a different faith.
In this chaos in the Middle East, only one island of sanity can be found where Christians are not persecuted, where they enjoy freedom of religion and ritual, freedom of expression, and where they can live in peace without fear of genocide. That island is the State of Israel.
Not many people in the world are familiar with the Christian community in Israel, and there are many who are not even aware that these Christians are Israeli citizens. Eighty percent of the 175,000 Christians in Israel are Arabic-speaking, or, as the common but anachronistic term describes them, “Christian Arabs.” They are a mere two percent of the population in Israel.
This community is deeply rooted in the Land of Israel with many being descendants of Judeo-Christians from the days of Jesus and his followers. They are also descended from the inhabitants of the land who received Christianity during the Roman Empire. This Byzantine Empire took on Christianity as the official religion in 324 CE. At that time, Christians became the majority in the Land of Israel, only to lose this status after the conquests of Islam and the Arab tribes.
The Arab-speaking Christians in Israel generally belong to the Greek Catholic or the Greek Orthodox Church. Others are Maronites, Copts, Protestants, Baptists, Evangelicals and others. Alongside them are the Armenians living in Israel, many of whom also speak the Arabic language. However, today the families are mixed and there is marriage between Christians of all denominations.
In Israel, Christians are considered well-educated, since many of them study in private schools run by the churches in which the instruction is of a very high standard. In fact, this is the group with the best data in terms of education in Israel based on matriculation certificates for university entrance requirements: 64 percent of the Christians qualified for university last year as compared to 50 percent of the Druze, 39 percent of the Muslims, and 53 percent of the students in the Hebrew education sector. As a result, the average economic condition of most of the Christian Arabs is also very good.
The Christian community in Israel has no single religious leadership because of the division into different denominations and churches. Most of them live intermingled with Muslim Arabs in their Muslim–majority communities while a significantly smaller percentage live in Jewish or mixed communities. Most live in the Galilee, Nazareth and Haifa in the north of Israel. Another large concentration is in Jerusalem while others live in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ramle and Lod in the center of Israel. There are only two villages which are populated with a Christian majority and are considered Christian villages, those of Mi’ilya and Fassuta . In the past, a city with religious significance like Nazareth was a Christian city with a Christian majority, but Nazareth eventually became Muslim-majority. This has led even more Christians to leave and move to nearby non-Muslim majority cities like Nazareth Illit or other local Jewish communities.
The Arab-speaking Christians are considered part of the Arab minority in Israel with most of them self-identifying more strongly as Arab rather than Israeli. As such, embedded within the Muslim Arabs in Israel, the Christians are in fact are a minority within a minority and have no real influence. As a result, they do not have a unified political leadership and have no significant political influence in the State of Israel in general and in the Arab sector in particular. Over the years, Christians served as members of Knesset in the Israeli parliament, some of them on behalf of the Israeli Labor Party, which is a Zionist party at its core. Others served as members of parliament on behalf of the Communist Party. Some have also served in the Balad Party, which has a pan-Arabist platform, a party that is considered radically nationalist and separatist and that strongly opposes the existence of the State of Israel and even supports terrorism.
The Christian members of the Knesset generally do not see themselves as representatives of the Christians but as representatives of the entire Arab sector. Bassel Ghattas, a former Christian Knesset member who served on behalf of the Balad party, is currently serving a prison term for smuggling mobile phones to terrorists imprisoned in Israeli prisons. Azmi Bishara, another Christian member and the founder of the Balad party, fled from Israel to Qatar after he was captured while acting as a spy for the Hezbollah terrorist organization in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War.
This extreme trend, though prominent and vocal, does not represent the entire Christian community. In fact, a little more than six years ago, a completely opposite trend arose. A number of Christian activists decided in August 2012 to establish a forum that would encourage the Christian community to connect with the State of Israel and Israeli society in an entirely different manner.
The first and most important move that they wanted to encourage was volunteering to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and in the National Civil Service. It is important to note that there is a compulsory recruitment law that applies to Jews, Druze and Circassians (a small non-Arab Muslim community). Christians, Bedouins, and Arab Muslims are exempt from service but may volunteer in the IDF and the security forces or the National Civil Service for work in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, firefighting, and emergency medical services.
In October 2012, Christian activists held the first public conference in Nazareth Iliit calling on young Christians to volunteer in the IDF. The conference was attended by 300 Christians, most of them youth and other social activists. Three priests attended the conference and expressed their support for this move.
The day after the conference, radical political elements in the Arab sector, the Christian community, and radical Islamic elements began to threaten the priests. In the days following the conference, posters and ads denounced them, their vehicles were damaged, and a rag drenched in blood was hung on the door of one priest. Two of the priests were intimidated by the threats and distanced themselves from the initiative. A third priest, Father Gabriel Naddaf of the Greek Orthodox Church in Nazareth, did not waver and decided to continue. He established an organization, Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum – Christian Empowerment Council, that worked to encourage young Christians not only to volunteer for military or national service, but also to lead the Christian community to full integration into society and the State of Israel in all fields. His vision was to change the Christian community in Israel from a minority without influence into an influential community. Implicit in this was a desire to re-establish its historical Aramean identity. This led to a decision by the Israeli Minister of Interior in September 2014 to recognize the Aramean nationality as part of the Israeli population registry. The State of Israel is the first country in the world to recognize the identity of Aramaean as a historic nation of Christians in the region.
It is important to note that even before this initiative, Christians had risen to key positions in the Israeli public, such as judges in the supreme courts, department and hospital directors, police and army officers, senior government officials, academics, and diplomats. But most of them did so in a personal and private manner as individuals. This was not a trend of community responsibility or representatives of the Christian community.
The move towards communal service in the IDF was significant. In Israeli society, such service is a symbol that indicates belonging, and it is the most prominent feature that connects all parts of Israeli society. Military service or national service is an entry ticket to Israeli society and symbolizes a step towards genuine partnership.
But that was not the only reason Father Naddaf emphasized service in the IDF. The Christians in Israel were motivated by the deteriorating condition of the Christian communities throughout the region.
In the State of Israel, Christians are living under a democratic regime in a free society, with freedom of religion, worship, expression and security, and the community is in a state of constant growth. Conversely, Christians in other countries in the Middle East are horribly persecuted. This is clearly the case in Egypt, Gaza, the Palestinian Authority, and Iran. In Lebanon, Christians have lost their birthright to a country that was once called the Paris of the Mediterranean. In Iraq and Syria, there is currently a genocide being waged against the Christians and the Yezidis.
Father Naddaf and his fellow activists called on Christians in Israel to stand up and contribute to the defense of the state, to the protection of the Holy Land, which is also their home. If Israel provides us with protection and security, we must be part of it, they claimed.
And the Christians in Israel responded to the call. Before 2012, the average number of Christians who volunteered for IDF service was approximately 35 per year from 1,800 high-school graduates. Today, there are approximately 100 volunteers for the IDF annually and another 600 recruits who do National civil service. This means that approximately 40 percent of the high school graduates declare in a practical manner that they are Israeli Christians, an integral part of Israeli society and the State of Israel.
Father Gabriel Naddaf paid a heavy personal cost for his activities. His son was bitten, he received death threats, pressure was put on the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch to fire him, and false accusations of criminal involvement and indecent acts were disseminated on him. This led to an investigation of the most senior unit in the Israel Police. After an investigation of several months, the state prosecutor’s office announced the closing the case for lack of evidence. In June 2017, Father Gabriel announced his retirement from public activity. He closed the organization he established and returned to the church to serve as head of the Greek Orthodox community in Yafia, near Nazareth. In the years he led the historic movement, he opened the door, broke the walls of fear, and showed the way. Christians today are continuing to follow in his path.
It must be understood that this is a real revolution. It is a social and national process of historic proportions that also provokes many reactions. These are manifested in campaigns and conferences against recruitment (some funded by the European Union), boycotts and threats against Christian families, and activity within the churches to exert pressure on clerics and church activists who support the historical move. Physical violence has been directed against activists, families of Christian soldiers, and other volunteers who encourage the historic move.
Despite these efforts to prevent the Christians from integrating into Israeli society, there are many who remain even more determined. In the past, Christian soldiers were afraid to return to their homes wearing IDF uniforms lest they bring harm their families. Today, most of them wear their uniforms proudly. There are many in the Christian communities who are waiting to see how this entire historic process will develop. The hope of these people is that the Christians in Israel will be recognized as an independent community and not as part of the Muslim Arab sector. An example of this is the Druze and Circassian communities, which are considered to be an independent community with separate divisions and budgets within the government system.
Opponents of this move, among the Christians and the Arab sector, fear precisely this: that the Christians will receive independent and separate status. They counter this with claims that the Israeli government is interested in dividing and ruling within the Arab sector in order to weaken it. The Christians who advocate for integration counter this by emphasizing their desire to find the unique place of the Christian community within Israeli society. They emphasize their pride in both their Christian and Israeli identity. These Christians emphasize that for so long, they were told that they are Arabs, part of the Arab nation. They now reject this, acknowledging that their roots are in the Holy Land and Levant, planted many years before the appearance of Islam and the Arab tribes. They also point to Arab and Islamic persecution of Christians in the region as proof that they are not part of either. “Is this what brothers do?” they ask themselves.
This historic move by the Christians in the State of Israel is undoubtedly the result of the Arab Spring. In the Arab countries, the Arab Spring turned into a stormy winter for Christians in Syria, Iraq and Libya. In Israel, it led to a true spring among the Christians.
Today, a number of small organizations continue the journey that Father Naddaf began. The most prominent of these is the “Jerusalemite Initiative,” which focuses on Arab-speaking Christians in Jerusalem and is led by Elias Zarina, a social activist who grew up in Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter and was educated in Bethlehem. I am also one of the four founders of this organization. After six years of involvement in this historical change among the Christians in Israel, five of them as the projects manager of Father Naddaf’s organization, I decided with Elias and other Christians and Jews that it’s time to bring this change to the Arab-Christians of Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, there are some 13,000 Arab-speaking Christians. They live among Muslims and under pressure of the Palestinian Authority. Many of the Jerusalemite Christians study in Bethlehem and learn lies about Israel, Palestinian identity, and politics among the church schools, preventing many of them from the opportunity to learn Hebrew. Imagine living in a state and not knowing its major language. This prevents you from feeling like a part of the state, greatly reduces employment opportunities, and prevents social mobility. We decided to establish the “Jerusalemite Initiative” in order to help reduce the gaps and bring the young generation closer to the Israeli society, to bring them some of the historical changes that Christians in the north and center have gone through in recent years. This is a big step and a major challenge.
The community in Jerusalem is different from the community in the north and center of Israel. The change in Jerusalem will come mainly from the younger generation. Throughout 2018 we conducted a process of learning. We met several times with groups of young Christians to hear about their needs. The first and basic thing that arose was the need for the Hebrew language. Other needs were also raised, such as studies on the State of Israel, Zionism, the history of Christians in the Land of Israel, and rights and obligations in democratic Israel. Some asked about the way to volunteer for the IDF or National Service and more.
We decided to pick up the glove. Thanks to contributions from Evangelical Christians who understand the importance of this kind of initiative, we launched few month ago a free Hebrew course for Christians in Jerusalem. We were surprised by the great response to the course and the age groups. They only wanted to register for the course. We know we have a long way ahead of us, but we live in times of changes between Jews and Christians all over the world and also here in Israel, and Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel is part of it.
The reason for the challenge to the Christians of Jerusalem is as I mentioned above, the Palestinian identity and the involvement of the Palestinian Authority (PA). That brings me to the Christians who live under the PA. Before we even begin with some samples of persecution against the Christians in the PA, we should understand that they are being used by the PA as a tool in the political field.
The first good example is the effort that local Christians leaders made after President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6, 2017. We can also understand the politics from the case of the Kairos Document.
In response to the decision made by President Trump, thirteen Christian leaders in Israel, including the Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church Theophilus III, the Coptic, Aramean and Ethiopian Church Archbishops and director of the Latin Patriarchate in the city, signed a letter showing disagreement with Trump’s declaration. These and others who signed the letter took part just a few days afterward in an annual reception led by Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin for Christmas and New Year, to which all heads of churches and Christian organizations based in Israel are invited. Church leaders also met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for a traditional gathering between Christmas and the New Year, and also held meetings with the mayor of Jerusalem. Christian leaders in the Middle East also refused to meet vice president Mike Pence when he visited the region in January 2018. This refusal stems from fear and from the lack of complete independence and political surrender of the Christian leaders in the Middle East, except in Israel.
Not all heads of Christian organizations and priests of Israel signed the letter; there are a number of them who have publicly stated, on several occasions, their support for the decision of President Trump. Many of the Christians in Israel were happy with the decision and published it, which points out the gap between the church leaders, who give in to political dictates from the Palestinian Authority, and the Israeli Christians, who feel safe and free. The majority among the Israeli Arabic-Speaking Christians community see the State of Israel as a home and are not ashamed of it. Naturally, they fly Israeli flags even during Christian holidays, such as the ceremony of Catholic Scouts in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, or the ceremony of the Greek-Orthodox Church in Yafia next to Nazareth only a few weeks ago on Palm Sunday. Or this unique marriage proposal last year, of an Arabic-Speaking Christian couple, both soldiers, which took place during the general rehearsals for the official ceremony of the State of Israel’s 70th Independence Day. We should also mention Hadeel Moreb, a Christian Aramean soldier who received a Certificate of Excellence from the President of the State of Israel on Israeli Independence Day in May of last year. Hadeel will become an officer in the IDF just in few weeks.
Among the Israeli Christians lives a vocal extremist minority that promotes anti-Israeli activities. Within this minority, the most prominent activists are the leaders of the Council of the Greek Orthodox Church in Nazareth (funded by the State of Israel): Bishop Atallah Hanna of the Greek-Orthodox Church, a terrorism supporter who called young Christians to join the Hamas and recently also met with Bashar al-Assad and Father Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest founder of the “Sabeel” organization that promotes the PLT – Palestinian Liberation Theology and “Kairos Document.” Sabeel and the PLT leaders are also involved in the BDS boycott campaign against Israel. The KAIROS PALESTINE document is one of Sabeel’s largest projects which aided in its promotion among the World Council of Churches.
The document is not only a call to boycott Israeli companies, but also places the blame squarely on Israel and refuses to acknowledge its right to protect itself. Palestinian attacks targeting Israeli civilians are not terrorism motivated by a desire to destroy Israel, but “legal resistance” motivated by a desire to liberate themselves from oppression. In other words, the conflict is all Israel’s fault: the Palestinians are innocent. Israelis sin; Palestinians make mistakes. Palestinian violence is justified; Israeli self-defense is not.
The Kairos document has been promoted by the World Council of Churches and Sabeel as a statement of “Palestinian Christian leaders” that has the “endorsement” of the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem.
But we must know the sequence of things, or the signatories. First, the list of signatories to the statement at the beginning of the letter opening the Kairos Document was published by the heads of the churches about four days after the publication of the Kairos Document itself. The political pressure exerted upon them prompted them to publish the following statement that was later affixed to the Kairos Document.
“We, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, hear the cry of hope that our children have launched in these difficult times that we still experience in this Holy Land. We support them and stand by them in their faith, their hope, their love and their vision for the future. We also support the call to all our faithful as well as to the Israeli and Palestinian Leaders, to the International Community and to the World Churches, in order to accelerate the achievement of justice, peace and reconciliation in this Holy Land. We ask God to bless all our children by giving them more power in order to contribute effectively in establishing and developing their community, while making it a community of love, trust, justice and peace.”
It’s important to understand who were the authors of the Kairos Document, and those who signed it: Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, who was at that time the only one of all the signatories who actually served as a Christian leader and later removed his signature from the document; Michel Sabbah, a former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, a pro-Palestinian known voice; Archbishop Atallah Hanna the terror supporter; Father Naim Ateek of Sabeel; Lutheran Rev. Mitri Raheb )called by some Christians the Sheikh because of his radical views); and other clergy and activists representing the same political line. So, the document not represent the views of the heads of churches but of its own radical authors.
We can see that the main political involvement is seen among pro-Palestinian factors in churches and the pressure applied by the Palestinian authorities. It is important to understand that the churches located in Jerusalem also have churches and monasteries in the Palestinian territories, Gaza, Jordan and various connections throughout the Middle East, and are responsible for the safety of the clergy and possessions in those countries and regions. Therefore, fear is only natural. The main pressure is applied by Palestinian Authority officials, who take great advantage of Christians for their successful propaganda needs, while succeeding in covering for the wrongdoings they cause for the Christian population in the Palestinian Authority. But it is not only the Palestinian Authority itself that is spreading this kind of propaganda. Some of the Christians who live under the Palestinian Authority spread anti-Israeli Christian propaganda over social networks. Last year, following the riots of Palestinians in Gaza who tried to cross the border into Israel and throw explosive devices at the soldiers, two pictures were distributed on Good Friday. One picture shows a Palestinian rioter in Gaza who was hit and close to his picture, the image of Jesus after he was taken down from the cross. Another picture shows Jesus who was crucified and underneath it is written in Arabic: “Today Jesus Christ is crucified – Palestine, Return.” On the other hand, there are quite a few Christians from Jerusalem and other places in Israel who came out against this propaganda, which they accused of insulting the Christian religion.
No matter how hard they try to hide it, one cannot argue with numbers. The Christian population has plunged within the Palestinian Authority ever since Israel transferred control of these holds to the Palestinian Authority. In the 1970’s, Christians in the Jude and Samaria accounted for about 5% of the population, while currently the numbers represent only about 1-2% of the population. The best example is the birthplace of King David and Jesus, Bethlehem, where in 1950 Christians accounted for about 86% of the population and was distinctly a Christian town. Now, the number of Christians in the city represents only about 10%, trending negatively.
The situation in Gaza is even worse. Out of thousands were left only a few hundred Christians, which are being persecuted and live under constant threat, with severe restrictions on Christian holidays and rituals without any rights in practice.
The Christians saw it coming. Right after the Six-Day War in 1967, hundreds of respected figures in Bethlehem turned to the Israeli government, asking Israel to annex the city, including Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity within its borders. The Israeli government refused to do so back then due to demographic considerations. Another attempt occurred in 1995 under the Oslo accords, when the Christian mayor of Bethlehem at the time, Elias Freij, addressed the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, and in fear for the future of Christians in Bethlehem, asked him not to withdrawal from the city. Rabin answered that he would like the church leaders to address him officially and publicly, but since they refused to do so, Israel withdrew from Bethlehem and transferred control over the city to the Palestinian Authority, which has created a situation for the Christians that even today continues to go downhill. The church leaders hold direct responsibility for the worsening situation of Christians in the city.
Christians attempted once more to move everything possible from the Palestinian Authority to Israel. In 2003, the security fence between Jerusalem and Bethlehem was built. Church property that was adjacent to the security fence was left on the Palestinian side, which is why church leaders contacted Israeli officials, asking for a change to the route to make sure the churches’ property, as much of it as possible, remains on the Israeli side. The State of Israel has decided to consider the Christians, which resulted in negotiations with the Vatican that changed the fence route at the request of the Christians.
Things of this sort are usually done behind closed doors, and if they ever get published, it’s only after many years, since Israel holds itself responsible for the safety of the Christian priests. Despite the facts, the public image presented to the world is actually the exact opposite. Public announcements made by church leaders and Christian leaders in the Palestinian Authority and the world are often negative towards Israel.
Therefore, what are the reasons for the fear and fleeing of Christians? Tying the Hands of Christians and persecution. Here are some examples: In July 2015, the takeover on the Monastery of Beit Sahour by the Islamist Salafis near Bethlehem; on September 26th, 2015, the burning of the monastery of St. Charbel (Mar Charbel) in Wadi Ma’ali in Bethlehem. Bishop Moussa Al Haj reported that two days before the fire, the monastery was broken into by Muslims and valuables were stolen. The Palestinian Authority, as usual, claimed that the place burned down due to an electric shorting. Sobhi Makhoul of the Maronite Patriarchate of Jerusalem claimed that this is not the doing of a short circuit, but the intentional ignition by radical Muslim groups. Many Christians are trying to sell their property and land mostly to Jews before fleeing to Western countries, and they do so through many intermediaries due to the fact that the PA enacts a death penalty on those who sell lands, a type of “human rights” accepted by the Palestinian Authority.
The PA ranked 36th place in the list of 50 countries in which persecution is carried out against Christians, published by the “Open Doors” organization, for a good reason. Israel, incidentally, is not included anywhere between 50 countries.
While the Palestinian Authority ties down the hands of Christians, violates their freedom of religion, worship and expression, undermines their security and uses them, the situation is different in Israel. Israel is not just a safe haven for Christians; Israel is their true home, and even the radical elements among Christians I believe would prefer to live under Israel. This is in fact the difference between the Jewish, democratic, free state of Israel – knowing how to accommodate for better or worse the factors that slander and distort the truth – and the Palestinian Authority, where no matter how much money Europe will invest, will apparently remain corrupt, terrorizing anyone who is not in line with its views, particularly the Christian minority, which it deletes from its territories slowly but surely by using lies.
ghAmit Barak is one of the initiators of the historical movement to integrate Arabic-speaking Christians into the IDF and the Israeli Society, and has worked with Father Gabriel Naddaf from Nazareth for five years. Amit is an expert about Christian-Jewish relations in Israel and abroad. Born and raised in Nazareth Illit and currently living in Gush Etzion (Judea), he serves as an active reservist in a special paratroopers unit with both his father and his brother. Amit builds bridges between Jews and Christians in Israel and between both Jews and Christians from Israel and around the world. He also lectures in Israel and abroad on issues related to the Christian community in Israel and Jewish-Christian relations. Amit researches the historic roots of the Aramean-Christian identity and documents and researches the activities of anti-Israel Christian organizations and their connection to the Palestinian liberation theology.