By Will Braun
Christianity and Judaism are often thought of as being natural allies, especially from a U.S. perspective. U.S. evangelical Christians are some of the largest supporters of Israel with roughly 82 percent claiming that Israel has been given to the Jews by God. Considering that evangelicals make up nearly 25 percent of the U.S. population (81.425 million), it makes sense that this is the view generally associated with Christianity. Israel’s Christian population is much smaller with only two percent of Israelis proclaiming to be Christians. This much smaller group (around 170,000) has very different views than the average U.S. evangelical Christian.
When people first think of the three Abrahamic religions, most would say that Jews and Christians have much more in common with each other than either group has with Muslims. For many Israeli Christians, however, this is simply not true. There are two main groups of Christians living in Israel: those who claim to be Arab and those who claim to be Aramaic. Aramaic Christians are much more supportive of Israel than their Arab counterparts, but make up a smaller portion of the Christian population in Israel.
The Aramaic movement began in 2007 and has gained support throughout the Christian community since its conception. The issue was often considered unimportant and most solutions were very passive until the Arab Spring. After the Arab Spring, Father Naddaf, a prominent Israeli Greek Orthodox Priest, spearheaded the movement, taking a much more active approach. Instead of taking the easy way out and staying relatively quiet, Father Naddaf spoke out against the notion that Israeli Christians are simply part of the Arab minority found throughout Israel. He has also called for Armenian Christians to enlist in the IDF, a clear demonstration of his support for Israel. Since then, Christian enlistment has tripled, but Father Naddaf believes that this number could be even larger if Israel fully supports Israeli Christians by having no tolerance for anti-Armenian acts. Needless to say, the Armenian Christians are very pro-Israel and their views mostly coincide with standard U.S. evangelical views.
Israeli-Christians who consider themselves Arab, however, take a much different stance on Israel. While most U.S. evangelicals fully support Israel, Arab-Israeli Christians agree with Muslim Arabs on many political issues that plague Israel. The key issues these two groups agree on include a lack of peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel, and that Israel cannot be both a democracy and a Jewish state simultaneously. There is also a plurality of Arab Christians who believe that there could be a peaceful two-state solution, although the issue is still very polarizing even among this group, with 24 percent saying that a two-state solution is impossible.
With such differing opinions between Israeli Christians, a question is raised: why? Why is one group, although smaller, so openly in favor of Israel while the other clearly opposes many Israeli political stances? Why does one group side with evangelical Christians while the other sides with Muslim Arabs? Why is one group much larger than the other?
The simple answer is fear. It is no secret that Father Naddaf has been threatened countless times for his beliefs. There have been multiple death threats against him in the Israeli Arab world. His son, Judaan, was attacked and beaten in December 2013 (He later joined the IDF). Members of the Palestinian Authority forged letters to expel Father Naddaf from his position of power. None of these things have shaken Naddaf or his beliefs.
There is also the fact that many of the churches in the region have congregations throughout Gaza, Jordan, and in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA), creating a constant pressure to conform to Islamic ideologies and remain quiet on Christian issues. Christians are constantly being pushed out of the area and are being persecuted for their faith. Some examples of this include two cities from Jesus’ early life, Nazareth and Bethlehem. Bethlehem was once a predominately Christian city with over 85 percent professing Christianity. Now, the number has dropped all the way to 10 percent. Nazareth, on the other hand, nearly had its Christmas services cancelled by its Muslim mayor, Ali Salem, to protest the move of Israel’s capital to Jerusalem. If this were a Christian mayor attempting to cancel Eid Al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan and a significant Muslim holiday) there would be massive protests emerging throughout the entire region.
The Christians living in regions surrounding Israel live in fear, and face strong persecution if they decide to speak out. Israel offers religious freedom which is far more than many of the surrounding countries offer. It is vital for the Christians in the area that Israel remains strong and continues to protect the religious freedom which so few in the area enjoy. Hopefully, with the help of Israel, the Israeli Christians can continue to develop their own unique culture without any fear of backlash or persecution.
Photo Credit: Ammar Awad