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In Nazareth a Christian-Arab priest seeks full integration into Israeli society

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

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.

Why the intimidation and violence against Fr. Naddaf and his family? It isn’t difficult to connect the dots.

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.

The cradle of Christianity is all but going up in flames.

Meanwhile, despite threats about Iran’s nukes and Hamas’ warnings of a third intifada, some Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel are well aware that they live in the region’s only safe haven for their faith. And they have decided to do more than give thanks.

Some Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel are well aware that they live in the region’s only safe haven for their faith.

They want to defend their homeland, and a number of them have chosen to take action . Not only do they want to serve in the IDF, but they also are forming a political party and seeking reforms in Israel’s educational system, insisting that its curriculum include Christian history alongside that of Judaism and Islam.

Father Gabriel Naddaf leads this movement. He is articulate, bold and outspoken. He explained to the Jerusalem Report (Oct 7, 2013). “We want to be fully integrated into Israeli society... This land is holy to us too, and we are partners in it. We live under its protection and we should protect it along with its citizens.

“Given all that is happening in the region,” he says emphatically, “the time has come to discuss this. Now.”

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.

In the meantime, thanks to Naddaf and his colleagues’ efforts, the number of Arabic-speaking Christians who have enlisted in the IDF has seen a threefold increase since 2010. The Times of Israel remarked that the number is sufficient to enrage Arab community leaders and politicians.

Of the December 6, Fr. Naddaf says, “My son very much wants to enlist, in the near future, and serve in a combat unit. He believes in what I do, that we all have a home here, that he also needs to give to the country. The country gives him his rights, and should receive what it is due in return. We all need to live here in peace, and protect the existence of the country that we live in, since our future is here.”

Today the young man is recovering from the assault that was clearly intended to send a message -- not only to him but to the whole movement.

Fr. Naddaf has found a strong ally in Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who commented at a recent weekly cabinet meeting, “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. We will protect them.”