A groundbreaking”Israeli Christians: Breaking Free” conference was held last month in Nazareth. A small minority of Arabic Christians acknowledged the Jewish roots of their faith, denounced the false narrative that Israel stole their land, and stated firm support for the Jewish state. An Israeli secular reporter wrote, “The word ‘historic’ would not do it justice. This was nothing short of the shift of an ancient paradigm.”
Could this prove the last days’ rising up of a Ruth Remnant among Christians in the Middle East? Excerpts of the conference, as reported by Dror Eydar at israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=1234, follow:
“For a long time we had grown accustomed to thinking about the Middle East as an Arab region. But this region, the vast majority of which was originally not Arab, was conquered in the seventh century by tribes hailing from the Arabian Peninsula. They imposed their religion, their culture and their language on the indigenous population, and to top it all off, claimed ownership of the land in the region.
“But the social and diplomatic firestorms currently raging around us have begun to chip away at this monolithic point of view among various ethnic groups, whose identities are actually different than the ones we have lazily attached to them, and their voices are beginning to be heard loud and clear: ‘We are not Arabs,’ they are saying. ‘We are Christians who speak Arabic.'”
This viewpoint echoes historical research around the turn of the 20th century which concluded the majority of people inhabiting what was then called Palestine were not Arabs, but rather a wide mixture of Arabic speaking ethnicities. (My comment.)
Rev. Gabriel Naddaf is a Greek Orthodox priest in Nazareth and spiritual leader of the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum. He stated, “I am here to open the public’s eyes. If we want to refrain from lying to our own souls and to the general public, we must say clearly and unwaveringly: enough! The Christian public wants to integrate into Israeli society, against the wishes of its old leadership. There are those who keep pushing us to the margins, keeping us the victims of nationalism that is not our own, and of a conflict that has nothing to do with us,” he said.
Naddaf spoke of the Christian roots, planted deep in this land since the dawn of Christianity. This is where Jesus Christ’s doctrine first emerged. The Christian faith, he said, came out of the Jewish faith and its biblical roots. As far as Naddaf is concerned, what happened in the seventh century was an Arab [Islamic] invasion from which the Christians also suffered. He added that he wasn’t very proud of the Christian crusades either, and distanced himself from them.
He surveyed the dire situation currently faced by Christians in Arab states, and said that the realization Israel is the only country in the region that protects its Christian minority has prompted many Arabic-speaking Israeli Christians to develop a desire to contribute to the state of Israel. That is how the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum came to be.
Naddaf quoted the founder of the forum, Maj. Ihab Shlayan, as saying: “We want to live in Israel — brothers in arms and brothers in peace. We want to stand guard and serve as the first line of defense in this Holy Land, the Land of Israel.”
“We have broken through the barrier of fear,” Naddaf went on to say. “The time has come to prove our loyalty, pay our dues and demand our rights.” He spoke about the death threats that he and his friends face [mostly from Islamists] and added that despite the hardships they continue forward “because the State of Israel is our heart. Israel is a holy state, a strong state, and its people, Jews and Christians alike, are united under one covenant.”
Naddaf was followed at the podium by Lt. (ret.) Shaadi Khalloul, the spokesman of the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum and an officer in the Israel Defense Forces Paratroopers Brigade. Khalloul, a Christian history scholar, has fought for recognition of his community as Aramaic Christians. We are “B’nei Keyama,” which means allies in Aramaic, he said. He has nothing against the Arabs, but it is simply not his identity. It is especially problematic for him because being associated with the Arabs pulls him into a conflict that is not his own, entirely against his will.
Khalloul said that the way to integrate into Israeli society was through military service in the IDF, which he described as a melting pot, but also through education. It turns out that Israel’s Christian population is not educated in their own history, only the history of the Arabs and of Islam. “The typical Christian student thinks that he belongs to the Arab people and the Islamic nation, instead of speaking to the people with whom he truly shares his roots — the Jewish people, whose origins are in the Land of Israel.”
Adding to that point, Rev. Naddaf stepped in and said, “It is unthinkable that our children will be raised on the history of the Nakba [“Catasrophe” in Arabic, referring to Israel’s rebirth] and on the hatred of Jews, and not be taught their history.”
Remarking on the ongoing debate surrounding the issue of a Jewish-democratic state vs. a so-called state of all its citizens, Khalloul said that he preferred a Jewish state that takes care of all its citizens over a state governed by all its citizens, without a Jewish identity.
“Several decades ago, 80 percent of the Lebanese population was Christian,” he recalled, “but the 20% Muslim minority imposed their Arab identity on them and many of them left. Today, only 35% of the population is Christian.” Syria, too, he added, is comprised of Christians and Kurds who are not Arab. “Where is the respect for these groups? For their history and their culture?” Only in a Jewish state, he concluded, will different groups be given the right to exist.
Naddaf then interjected and said, “That is not just [Khalloul’s] opinion. The entire forum shares this view.”
The last representative to take the stage was Capt. Bishara Shlayan, whose initiative to establish the Christian Israeli [Political] Party was first reported in Israel Hayom this past July. Following the report, Shlayan was bombarded with responses from all over the world.”We were raised on Arab political parties,” he said, “the communists, and then the National Democratic Assembly. In time, I realized where these Arab parties were taking us — only against Israel.”
“We need to create a different culture,” he continued. “We need to hand out Israeli flags to every child. Education begins here. You enter a school in Nazareth, and you will not see a single Israeli flag. They don’t recognize it. You will only see Palestinian flags.”
The conference was conducted with the support of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel. It represents only a minority of Israeli Christian Arabs. Nevertheless, it could herald a new beginning and counter voice against anti-Jewish and anti-Israel Christian Palestinianism. Pray for these brothers and sisters in Yeshua and for revival for all people groups in Israel! (My comment.)