A revolutionary man of God is preaching in the Galilee.
His purpose is salvation.
But unlike Jesus 2,000 years ago, the aims of Greek Orthodox priest Gabriel Nadaf are a little more down-to-earth. He wants to achieve salvation for Christians in Israel by encouraging them to integrate in Israeli society.
“We were dragged into a conflict that wasn’t ours,” says Father Nadaf. “Israel takes care of us, and if not Israel, who will defend us? We love this country, and we see the army as a first step in becoming more integrated with the state.”
Serving in the military is widely recognised as the gateway to mainstream acceptance and equality of opportunity in Israeli society.
Together with a Maronite former IDF captain, Shadi Khallouf, Nadaf has established the Christian Recruitment Forum.
Already, the Forum seems to be gathering grass-roots support. The draft is compulsory only for Jews, Druze and Circassians: by mid-summer 2013 the numbers of Christian recruits in the IDF had gone from 35 to 100. Some 500 Christians have reportedly volunteered for national service.
In July 2013, a new mainly-Christian party, B’nai Brit Hahadasha ( Sons of the New Testament), was formed. The mayor of the mixed Christian-Muslim town of Nazareth has condemned one of the party’s founders, Bishara Shlayan, as a “collaborator” with the Israeli authorities.
The Christians appear to be rising up in protest against the traditional anti-Zionist radicalism of Arab parties in the Israeli Knesset. Sometimes even more radical than than their own electorate, these are not interested in promoting local issues. Their leaders resort to demagoguery and divisiveness, using rhetoric indistinguishable from that of the PLO.
“The current Arab political establishment has only brought us hatred and rifts,” says Bishara Shlayan. “The Arab-Muslim parties didn’t take care of us. We are not brothers with the Muslims; brothers take care of each other.”
Israel’s 160,000 Christians comprise 2 percent of Israel’s population. They are a minority within a minority. They tend to be among the best educated and affluent of Israelis, but marry later and tend to have fewer children than their Jewish counterparts.
Nadaf’s Christian awakening may be seen as a response to the Arab Spring. The rise of Islamism has led to the vicious persecution of Christians. Copts, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Maronites are fleeing the Middle East in droves. Some predict that, like the Jews of the region, the Christian community will be driven to extinction.
Although the Christian share of the Israeli population has fallen, Israel is the only country in the Middle East where numbers of Christians are growing. The 80 percent Arab Christians have been bolstered by the arrival of 20,000 Russian Christians.
For Mordechai Nisan, an expert on Middle East minorities, Father Nadaf’s movement heralds a sea-change in attitudes among Christians.
Traditionally, Arabic-speaking Christians have thrown in their lot with Arab Muslims, he explains. Along with Muslims they have identified with the Palestinian cause. In Syria and Iraq, Christians have been cheerleaders for pan-Arab nationalism and leading lights in Arab communist parties. A Christian, Michel Aflaq, was the ideologue behind the nationalist Ba’ath party. Constantine Zureiq was a Christian intellectual moderniser who advocated Arab unity based on reason and science.
Ultimately, the passionate identification of Christians with pan-Arabism and communism was a means of escaping the humiliations and exactions of ‘dhimmitude’. Together with Jews, Christians were relegated to second-class status under Muslim rule. Zionism represents the national liberation of the Jews from the shackles of dhimmitude.
For Mordechai Nisan, the Christian movement in Israel marks ‘the end of dhimmitude’. Nisan excitedly proclaims: “Christians in Israel’s Galilee are courageously promoting their pre-Islamic non-Arab identity as an old-new collective Aramean/Aramaic-speaking Oriental narrative.”
Perhaps Nisan is going too far. Father Nadaf is merely switching alliances – latching on to the coat-tails of the Jews. He is not overstating a separate non-Arab identity.
Already Father Nadaf’s declaration of loyalty to Israel has come at a cost. He has had to engage bodyguards and had his car tyres slashed. He has been forced to rely on his Jewish friends to protect him. Israeli politicians have had to intervene to prevent the Jerusalem Patriarchate from firing Father Nadaf.
Nadaf’s teenage son recently suffered a brutal beating by a 21-year old youth linked to the anti-Israel Hadash party.
“As I call for integration in Israeli society, extremists are trying to divide and tear and incite against me,” Nadaf said the following day. “The incitement of verbal threats has passed yesterday into physical violence as their goal is to intimidate me and my family.”
It remains to be seen whether Father Nadaf can muster enough support to withstand the pressures.
An old story in Galilee.