Hebrew-Speaking Catholics Navigate Challenges to Foster Interfaith Dialogue

“At that time, they shall call Yerushalayim “Throne of Hashem,” and all nations shall assemble there, in the name of Hashem, at Yerushalayim. They shall no longer follow the willfulness of their evil hearts.” Jeremiah 3:17 (The Israel Bible™)

It is rare for a Jewish celebration to be disrupted in Israel, but then again, a candle-lighting ceremony last month at Jerusalem’s First Station compound was far from typical: The event was sponsored by Yaakov Hatzadik, a small Catholic community of Hebrew speakers based in the downtown area of the capital, and marked both the Chanukah and Christmas holidays.

While many people viewed the lighting as a significant victory for interfaith relations in the Holy City, others took a contrary view: The ceremony was disrupted members of Lahava, a far-right wing group that began by discouraging romantic relations between Jews and Christians and now seeks to marginalize  non-Jews in many aspects of Israeli society under the guise of opposing “assimilation.”

“Our dialogue is not always seen positively by the Jewish society,” said one member of Kehilat Zion who would only agree to have her first name, Ilana, published. “But I haven’t missed a meeting for the last two years. We host the [Christian] community for the Jewish holidays; they came to our houses for Passover and the Jewish New Year. We go to their church for Christmas and the New Years Eve.”

The candle-lighting ceremony highlights the challenges faced by the Hebrew-speaking Christian community. The community of about 1000 people was born at the tail end of the 1950s, when interfaith couples arrived in Israel, as did Christians who moved to Israel, integrated into the secular life of Israel and spoke Hebrew, all the while retaining their Catholicism.

Father Rafic Nahra, the newly-appointed Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel, told Tazpit Press Service that he wasn’t surprised by the Lahava disruption.

“As a Christian who was born in the Middle East, when I first arrived in Israel I didn’t know what anti-Judaism was,” says “I didn’t know about the negative relations between Jews and Christians rooted in Europe, but I was impressed by the political tension between Jews and Christians in Israel, and I wanted to do something about it.”

Speaking to Tazpit Press Service (TPS) on Thursday , a day before terrorists killed 11 people in a church in Cairo, Father Nahra says he is not surprised about the ongoing difficulties of the Christian communities in the Middle East. After nearly 15 years in Jerusalem, he has long witnessed the tensions of the region and the politics that make creating real interfaith dialogue between the three monotheistic religions difficult.

“I know the Middle East  and the Arab world very well. I am part of it, there are no  surprises,” he says.

Still, the meeting point between Christianity, Judaism and the Hebrew language forms a central theme of Nahra’s ministry. After being born in Ismailia, Egypt in 1959 , Nahra grew up in Lebanon, studied in seminaries in France and Italy before relocating to Jerusalem in 2003. His community counts not more than 1000 faithful spread over six cities, many of whom face unique challenges as Christians trying to fit into a Jewish majority culture. Although most members of the community are fully integrated into Israeli society, there is a lot of ignorance about Christians in Israel.

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“There is not enough written material in Hebrew about our community,” Nahra said. “I want to translate texts and to let Israelis Jews know who we are. We have a lot in common, but we are also different.

We pray in Hebrew, our Mass is in Hebrew, and we sing in Hebrew. Many followers of our community are caught between cultures: Some are migrants, some children of mixed marriages or spouses of Jews. I try to help them to develop a Christian identity in an Israeli world without living in opposition, but just knowing who they are and what we believe,” the Vicar added.

Despite the challenge, however, some members of the community feel that far from diluting their religion, the experience of living as a minority in Israel serves to bolster their Christian faith and practice.

Beni, a native of Naples, Italy who came to Israel to pursue a Ph.D in Hebrew Literature at Hebrew University, decided to stay in Israel after “falling in love with the country and the Hebrew language.

According to Beni, Christianity is at its best when it is a minority, and the fact of being part of such a small community creates a more authentic religious experience.

“Unlike the European churches, here the Israeli community prays in sober, minimalist rooms, a style that we have absorbed by the Israelis, who do not like lavishness,” he told TPS. Our awareness of being a minority allows us to get  much closer to the Jews than we could do in Europe, in particular in southern Italy, where I come from,” Beni said.

Beni feels his community serves as a real bridge between religions, and said that the church’s dialogue with Kehilat Zion has progressed beyond being a “simple” interfaith project into authentic friendships. “If Muslim religious leaders will become part of our  meetings, our team would become even stronger,” Beni told TPS.

All of which connects directly to Father Nahra, who says interfaith dialogue remains one of his highest priorities – despite the challenges. One project that allows the vicariate to open its doors to the wider Israeli community is its support for the children of migrants, many of whom were born in Israel, attend local schools and get their education in Hebrew. Nahra said the vicariate offers language programs classes and other practical support to young people caught between two cultures. Jewish Israelis help the vicariate with some of those support programs. “It is an active collaboration, not an idea.

“But it is what is needed. The world of building bridges is not about organizing conferences. That may be important, too. But it isn’t going to change the world. To do that, you’ve got to build relationships at the grassroots level by giving average people a concrete reason to connect,” he said.