The Wall Street Journal weekend edition had an article by former Ha’aretz editor Adi Schwartz, “Israel’s Christian Awakening” discussing the grassroots movement led by a Greek Orthodox Priest, Fr. Gabriel Naddaf, a charismatic former spokesperson for the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem. He hails from the village of Yaffia, located between Migdal Ha’emek and Nazareth. Nazareth, with its Church of the Annunciation is the largest Arab town in Israel. Once the boyhood town of Jesus and predominately Christian, it is now majority Muslim. Despite this, there are plans afoot to build a 100 foot statue of the community’s most famous son.
Fr. Naddaf, who has been featured in the Jerusalem Post, Ecumenical News, Fox News, and Times of Israel this year is doing something important. He and a team of Christian IDF serving officers and reservists have formed the Israel Christian Recruitment Forum. The aim of the group, Schwartz notes, is “to increase the number of Christians joining the Israel Defense Forces” from among the 130,000 Arabic -speaking Christians who constitute 1.6% of Israel’s 8 million population. Those Israeli Arabic speaking Christians are either Greek Catholic or Greek Orthodox. Some of their liturgy harkens back to the language of their non –Arabic ancient forbearers, the Arameans – derived from the ancient name for Syria, Aram, who spoke the lingua franca of Jesus and many ancient Jews, Aramaic. By contrast there are 1.3 Million Arab Muslims in the Jewish nation.
A Hebrew University specialist on Christians in Israel Amnon Ramon cited by Schwartz indicated that demographically Christians are closer to fellow Jewish citizens than Muslims; their median age is 30 versus 31; Christian women marry later and have fewer children and their educational attainment surpasses Jews.
Fr. Gabriel is seeking to integrate the Arabic-speaking Christian community into Israel and what better way to do that than through service in the Israel Defense Force (IDF). The Forum spokesperson, IDF 1st Lt. (Res. )Shadi Khaloul, said that “the total number of Christians serving in the Israeli military has more than quadrupled since 2012 from 35 to 150”. Fr. Naddaf reaffirms that saying, “ 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.” 18 years old Henry Zahir from the village of Reineh is cited by Schwartz agreeing with Fr. Naddaf saying, “Israel is my country and I want to defend it. The Jewish State is good for us.”
Lela Gilbert of the Hudson Institute wrote about the jeopardy that Naddaf’s leadership has placed both he and his family in a Fox News report, “In Nazareth a Christian-Arab priest seeks full integration into Israeli society”:
On December 6, the son of Nazareth priest, Fr. Gabriel Naddaf, was assaulted and beaten and is now hospitalized. Fr. Naddaf, who is Greek Orthodox, has received death threats for years; the attacker went after his son instead.
Prime Minister Netanyahu commented in a Times of Israel report on the attack:
I have heard about the threats of physical attacks by extremist elements in Israeli society against Christians, Christian Arabs who want to enlist in the IDF, who want to be part of the State of Israel. Against these people is an extremist group that is threatening them. We will not tolerate this; I will not tolerate this. We will use all of our tools to stop these thugs and we will allow whoever – Christian, Muslim and Druze – wants to link their fate even more to the State of Israel and wants to serve in the IDF to do so.
Fr. Naddaf commented about the source of the attack on his son in the Times of Israel report, saying, “Arab MKs have not issued any condemnation and I put the responsibility on them. This is the result of incitement that comes from them day and night.” Schwartz noted how virulently an Anti-Israel Arab Muslim Member of the Knesset, Hanin Zoabi, “wrote Naddaf calling him a collaborator, accusing him of putting young Christians in danger.” Zoabi told Schwartz,” We are a national group, not a religious one. Any attempt to enlist Christians is part of a strategy of divide and rule.” Forum spokesperson Khaloul, an officer who served in an IDF parachute brigade, countered Zoabi’s remarks saying,“We are not mercenaries. 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.”
Gilbert noted in her Fox News report:
In the Middle East, persecution against the region’s ancient churches continues to smolder, flare and rage out of control. Inflamed by Islamist ideology and specifically targeting Christians, brutality has escalated to unprecedented levels.
She drew attention to how Israeli Christians distinguish themselves from Muslims:
Speaking at a September Jerusalem conference, Fr. Naddaf, Capt. Bishara Shlayan, and a Christian IDF reserve officer, Lt. Shaadi Khalloul, offered their historical perspective.
Technically they are not Arabs, they emphasized, but are part of an ancient Christian community — a community that did not convert to Islam during the Muslims’ Seventh Century invasion.
“I think we should be referred to as Israeli-Christians,” Capt. Shlayan affirmed, rejecting the Arab-Christian label. “Yes, we speak Arabic. But our nationality is Israeli. And our religion is Christian.”
In fact, they are not only Christian Israelis, they are Zionists.
Theologically grounded in Aramaic and Assyriac liturgy and worship, this population has followed Jesus of Nazareth since he walked among them. Many of them even hail from Nazareth, his hometown – now Israel’s largest Arab city.
In their view, their spiritual heritage has been nearly forgotten, apart from within their churches. At the same time, neighboring Muslims harass and threaten harm while attempting to eradicate Christian shrines, signs and symbols.
Forum spokesperson Khaloul noted in an October video presentation (see below) that the group is seeking to have its heritage nto included in Islamic and Arabic History Courses. These Christian Israelis also want to form a Knesset Party, “B’nai Brith”, reflecting Ha Shem’s covenant with Jews and Christians.
When I shared these courageous acts of solidarity with the Jewish state by these Israeli Christians with author and scholar Bat Ye’or, she responded in an email:
This is quite a change! It is amazing that it took a century for Christians in the Middle East to understand that they were not Arab and that Muslims were not their friends. It is true that they were forced into this situation by France and England which declared that they will no more help them and that Christians had to militate into the Arab Nationalism non-sense.
Yuval Brandsetter in a Jerusalem Post oped about Fr. Naddaf, “The Good Father, “noted something that impressed us. This evident assertion of Israeli Christian identification and solidarity with Israel was a rejection of Dhimmitude; the 1,400 years of Islamic Imperialism imposed on Jews and Christians under the pact of Omar. He wrote:
In spite of his lowly position, or maybe because of it, Fr. Gabriel Naddaf has reached the conclusion that Christians Arabs residing in Israel must link their fortunes to the Jewish state. In acting on this conclusion with fortitude and a free mind, Fr. Naddaf stands in defiance of the 1,300-year legacy of dhimmitude – the legacy that both his Jerusalem Patriarch and Istanbul’s Ecumenical Patriarch continue to observe.
Watch this video of Fr. Gabriel Naddaf at an October 2013 Liaison Committee of The Israel Christian Recruitment Forum.
Watch this video of IDF Reservists 1st Lt. Shadi Khalloul, at an October 2013 Liaison Committee of The Israel Christian Recruitment Forum.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.