In a recent groundbreaking event, Israeli Christian, Druze and Bedouin leaders gathered in Nazareth in a new display of unity to discuss their role as citizens of the Jewish State. Nazareth is the largest city in northern Israel, and functions as its Arab capital. However, the town where Jesus grew up is now becoming known as the birthplace of a movement that encourages minorities to participate fully in Israeli society.
The leaders’ remarks, recorded in an Acts News Network video, published August 20, 2015 on YouTube, demonstrate that the escalation of radical Islam throughout the Middle East, and the accompanying persecution of all minorities, has made Christian, Druze and Bedouin citizens of Israel ever more thankful for the security and freedom provided for them by the Jewish State.
As Ayoob Karra, the former Deputy Minister of Development for the Negev and Galilee pointed out: “If you look around in Syria, in Lebanon, in Egypt, you can find that it is not the human rights for Christians in all these states. Only in Israel they have power to say everything loudly.”
While Karra only mentioned Christians by name, his statement applies to all minorities. Only in Israel are they safe from the discrimination and persecution experienced by “the other” in the rest of the Middle East, and only in Israel do they have the freedom to speak out.
A notable example of the freedom to speak – and get results – is demonstrated through the success of the Aramaic Christian Association in Israel and its chairman, Shadi Khalloul, in winning state recognition of Christian Arameans as a distinct religious and ethnic group vis-à-vis Arabs.
In order to achieve this acceptance, Khalloul presented a convincing case that, in spite of the fact that Arameans speak Arabic, their Aramean ethnicity is evidenced by the use of Aramaic in their schools and religious services. Indeed, Aramean Christians emphatically denounce Arab identity and choose instead to be integrated within the Jewish State.
In September 2014, Christian families or clans who speak Aramaic became eligible to register as Arameans, and Khalloul’s two-year-old son became the first official Christian Aramean citizen of Israel.
Speaking at a conference in Washington DC in April 2015, Khalloul asserted that the recognition of Christian Arameans on the part of the Israeli government:
…means that Israel allows the existence of Christian people within its borders, something no Muslim nation from the Middle East has ever done or would ever do. Israel supports us and legally gives us the right to exist and to develop ourselves as a Christian minority. This alone proves how fair and just Israel treats us as a minority. Israel is a democratic country and grants full rights to all its citizens, no matter whether they are Jews or non-Jews.
The intent on the part of Christian Arameans to play a part in Israeli society includes service in the IDF, even though it is not required of them. Khalloul was the first non-Jewish officer of a paratrooper brigade and continues to serve in the reserves. He actively encourages Aramean enlistment in the military because, as he said in the video published on August 20:
[Israeli] Christians understand that this is a country where they should defend and live in it. Because today they see what’s going [on] around them. They see how Christians are persecuted [and] butchered in Arab countries under Islamic regimes. And they are discriminated…scared…raped…whatever it is. Today, here they see in Israel, they live freely… enjoying freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of everything almost.”
In his efforts to encourage Christian enlistment in the IDF, Khalloul serves as a spokesperson for the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum, which was founded in 2012 by Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest who serves as the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Yafia, near Nazareth. Nadaf also identifies as an Aramean rather than an Arab, and like Khalloul, works to encourage Christian Aramean citizens to contribute to Israel by serving in the IDF.
Father Nadaf has paid a heavy price for his public alignment with the Jewish State. He is regularly harassed and threatened by Arab Muslims who fear that any loyalty to Israel will divide and weaken the Arab sector. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has also condemned Christian involvement in the Jewish State, describing it as an attempt to divide the Palestinian minority in Israel.
As a result of his stand, Father Nadaf has been slandered in social media, denounced by Arab members of the Knesset, censored by his church, and threatened physically. At the end of 2012, he challenged a boycott against him and had to be accompanied by Israeli Police officers – who were there to ensure his safety – as he attempted to enter a church to pray.
In December 2013, Nadaf’s son was severely beaten by members of the Hadash party, led by MK Mohammad Barakeh. But even this did not discourage the Nadaf family from their commitment to support Israel. Today, Nadaf’s son serves in the IDF, and Nadaf continues to speak publicly about how proud he is to live in the Jewish State. When he testified before the UN Human Rights Council in September 2014, he said:
In the Middle East today, there is one country where Christianity is not only not persecuted, but affectionately granted freedom of expression, freedom of worship and security…It is Israel, the Jewish State. Israel is the only place where Christians in the Middle East are safe.
In the recent video, Nadaf emphasized: “It’s very important that Christians here understand that they have no other place.” Because of this understanding, and in spite of the ongoing opposition from Arab antagonists, the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum is having phenomenal success. The number of Christian Israelis in national and military service increased to 30% of all Christian high school graduates last year.
This surge in Christian enlistment in defense of Israel supplements the involvement of the Druze and Bedouin. Since 1957, at the request of their community leaders, IDF service has been mandatory for Druze men. It is not mandatory for Bedouins, but as in the case of Christians, the number of Bedouins volunteering for the army continues to increase steadily.
As the narrator of the video concludes, it appears that non-Jewish Israeli leaders and citizens alike are in agreement that:
“Israel, the sole country in the region that offers Israeli Christians and minorities protection and rights, is really worth fighting for.”