Father Gabriel Naddaf never intended to step into the limelight. Popularity and prominence hardly figured into his plans for the future. But the Greek Orthodox priest who pastors his flock from Nazareth knew he was called to speak the truth on behalf of Israel, the tiny sliver of a country in the midst of a roiling Middle East where he and his fellow Christians are safe to live, thrive and worship.
Naddaf’s conviction has little to do with politics. The truth, he knew, was found in the source of all he believes: the Bible. And the Bible is clear about God’s everlasting commitment to the Jewish People. Moreover, it teaches that the title deed for the Land of Israel is held by the Almighty and pledged with a covenant to the children of Abraham.
And so the Arabic-speaking, Christian priest who calls the Jewish state home stepped up as an objective voice telling those who wished to hear – and often those who did not – of the freedoms, rights and security Israel’s non-Jewish citizens enjoy.
The past four years have proved particularly eventful for Naddaf. It started with his public call on Christian Israelis to join their Jewish brothers and sisters in shouldering the responsibility of guarding the Promised Land. Then came the establishment of the Christian Recruitment Forum as a formal platform to encourage his flock to join the Israel Defense Forces and the Christian Empowerment Council – a mouthpiece on behalf of Israel’s Christian citizens.
Both the forum’s and council’s efforts are supported by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, led by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who has been by Naddaf’s side since the very beginning, funding the council’s $150,000 annual operating budget.
“We have a wonderful, close relationship, and we are very thankful for the support that enables and strengthens us,” Naddaf says of his backers. “When I described our need for help to Rabbi Eckstein, he promised that his fund, which raises money from Christians all over the world who love Israel, would help us create programs that help Christian Arabs integrate into Israeli society,” Amit Barak, the forum’s project manager, says.
“Our connection with the IFCJ has played an extremely important role in helping us strengthen our relationship with other Christians around the world. We explain to people how Israel is the safest place for Christians to live in the Middle East, and tell them about the efforts being made to help integrate Arabs into Israeli society.”
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Then there was an opportunity to address the United Nations. And then a flurry of invitations to share his testimony with audiences around the world. Despite an increasingly jam-packed schedule, Naddaf also found the time to author a booklet warning international Christians against the malice masquerading as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and act as the voice of those forging a non-Arab, Aramaic identity in the Land of Promise.
All too soon, the priest who never intended to step into the limelight became a household name in Israel.
Naddaf has gone by many titles. His Arab opponents label him a “traitor,” a “divider of the Arab society” and a persecutor of Palestinians. The Israeli media refer to him affectionately as “the unorthodox priest who stands with the Jews.”
To Western believers, he is a Christian brother, sharing experiences forged from everyday life in the country where their belief was born. And for those who look to him for spiritual guidance, he is abouna, Arabic for father.
But who is this Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth who ruffles feathers, wins hearts, speaks truth about Israel to the international Church, inspires the young of his flock to serve their country and stands for a people forging an identity?
During a recent visit to the Christian Empowerment Council offices in Nazareth, Naddaf spoke about the man behind the labels – and the beliefs and convictions that shape and drive him.The journey begins
“I am an ordinary man, doing what is right, saying and doing what I know God wants me to.” This is how Father Gabriel Naddaf describes himself.
Dressed in the traditional Greek Orthodox clerical garb, the tall priest cuts an imposing figure. His manner is warm and inviting with an easy smile that hovers close, ready to spill into a joyous grin. Naddaf exudes peace, a quiet awareness that he is exactly where he is supposed to be, engaged in a life calling much bigger than him.
A native Galilean, the Christian priest was born and raised in Nazareth. Even at an early age, Naddaf knew he wanted to serve God. “Some voice, some pull inside told me to leave all to spend my time with God, praying.”
Yet the influences shaping his young mind were not all equally constructive. Growing up in Israel’s largest Arab city, he learned the details of the volatile history between Jews and Arabs from his teachers and neighbors. “The Arabs in Nazareth told me over and over again, ‘This is our land and the Jews took it!’”
At age 18, Naddaf moved to Haifa – a city where Jews and Arabs live as friends, colleagues and neighbors. For the first time, the narrative of the Jews as oppressive colonizers without a claim to the land came under scrutiny – and failed to hold true.
It started when he found work in a hotel under Jewish management. Seeing the young man’s potential, the powers that be took him under their wing, sending him on training courses to further his career. “I saw something completely different from what I learned in school and growing up in Nazareth,” he asserts.
Things came to a head in 1995, when he enrolled at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. “I learned history and theology,” he explains. “I learned about our roots as Christians. I learned that Jesus was Jewish, the descendant of Israel’s King David and that King David’s son King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. I learned about the same Jewish people living in this land 3,000 years ago, and that the New Testament calls it the Land of Israel. Nowhere is the land given to someone else.”
“It is not something I decided,” he declares. “It is all right here in black and white in the Bible, the foundation of what we believe.”
Naddaf was ordained as a Greek Orthodox priest trough the University of Thessaloniki, after which he returned home and joined the Patriarchate in Jerusalem. But the young cleric was troubled by the Christian community in Israel’s ignorance concerning their roots and history. “The Jewish heritage of our faith is not spoken about in our churches or schools,” he explains.
“In Arab communities, the teachings are on Arab or Islamic history. But what about the Christians? Someone had to show them their roots and their history so that they could know their identity.”
Naddaf turned out to be that someone. “What could I do?” he asks, grinning joyously. “I had seen the truth from the Bible. And I had to share it; I had to tell the Christian community about our incredible roots and the bond we have with our Jewish brothers and sisters.”Called to speak
Then came the dawn of the Arab Spring in 2011 – and radical Islam reaping death and destruction across large swatches of the Middle East and North Africa.
“Christians were slaughtered in their thousands – simply for being Christian,” he explains, his face drawn. “And I knew, again, that I had to speak, this time to the international community – even if I had to visit every country and go from house to house.”
Naddaf understands all too well that the atrocities committed in the Middle East against Christians and other minority groups is far from a pleasant subject. People in the West, he says, do not want to hear the horrifying details. “It is much easier to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear, pretend that it is happening far away and therefore does not concern or touch us.”
But the Christian priest from Nazareth has seen and heard too much to remain silent. “The world needs to know what is happening, what we are facing here in the Middle East. And above all, the world needs to know that in a region overrun with genocide, persecution, fanaticism and terrorism, Israel is different.”
This is the message that Naddaf proclaimed when he took to the podium at the UN Human Rights Council in September 2014. “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,” he declared boldly. “It is Israel, the Jewish state. Israel is the only place where Christians in the Middle East are safe.”
Naddaf also had a word of warning for the 47 member nations of the council. “It is time the world woke up to the fact that those who want to destroy the Jewish state are signing the death warrant on the last free Christians in the Holy Land.”
It is this conviction that motivated him to take on the “hypocritical” BDS movement last year. In July 2015, Naddaf’s Christian Empowerment Council published a booklet aimed at debunking the hype around the movement and thus helping Christians understand its true nature. Entitled “Test the Spirits: A Christian Guide to the Anti-Israel Boycott Movement,” the guide educates and outlines why Christians should turn their back on the movement.
“There is a concerted coordinated effort to boycott Israel, which is managed by the Arab League, the Palestinian Authority and activist groups seeking to influence their churches against Israel,” Naddaf told Jerusalem Online.
“It is important that churches do not allow themselves to be used as tools of a corrupt foreign policy, which is what the BDS movement targeted against Israel essentially is.”
In the guide’s introduction, Naddaf addresses the confusion in the global church today towards the Jewish state. He argues, however, that one simply has to look to the Bible to see that God claims Israel as the apple of His eye (Zechariah 2:8).
“I love this country, this is my home,” he declares. “That is why I encourage our youth to physically protect those who would harm our home. But as a spiritual leader, I also have the responsibility to protect our home against malicious lies and to encourage Christians around the world to think about Israel in biblical and moral ways.”
To those around the world who have bought into the BDS hype, Naddaf offers a simple challenges: “Who are you going to believe? The international media or the Bible? Are you going to be swayed by the emotional arguments of political leaders who pocket money and oppress people? By a hypocritical bully like the BDS movement? Or will you listen to a fellow Christian who lives, loves and thrives right here in Israel? Someone who speaks from personal experience?”
“According to the Bible, the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria, belongs to the Jewish people forever. The promises of God to His people cannot be erased.”
Father Naddaf’s office is decorated in shades of mahogany and blue. An Israeli flag occupies a place of honor. But the first thing that catches the eye is a giant poster adorning one of the walls, offering visitors a brief glimpse of what the Christian Empowerment Council stands for.
Pictures of Christian IDF soldiers, saluting and running into action, a smiling Naddaf keeping watch over his flock and a silhouette of a cross fills the right side of the poster. To the left, a quote from Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a Revisionist Zionist, “From the wealth of our land there shall prosper; the Arab, the Christian, and the Jew.” And in the middle, joining the past with the present, the haunting words from Israel’s national anthem, “To be an independent people in our land, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
“I embrace Zionism, Jewish sovereignty in Israel, and the tolerance, respect and opportunity for all that have grown out of that sovereignty,” Naddaf wrote recently. “I believe that our youth – Christian youth – should fully integrate into Israeli society. Part and parcel of that integration includes serving in the IDF, Israel’s army.”
“Israel offers all its citizens – Jewish, Arab, Christian, Druse, Bedouin and whoever else – the freedom to worship as we wish, to pursue our dreams, to travel, to love and to live in safety,” he explains.
“We live in a country that offers us such benefits – is it not also our responsibility to help keep our home safe from those who would destroy it? Our Jewish brothers and sisters go to the army. So do the Druse and the Bedouins. It is also our duty to protect our country and our people.”
That is what the Christian Recruitment Forum is all about. Established in 2012, the forum offers the youth of Naddaf’s flock the motivation, assistance and support on their journey of enlisting and serving in the IDF.
Moreover, the forum also encourages young Christians who are unable to join the army to contribute and integrate in Israeli society through national service, such as volunteering in hospitals, schools and centers for the physically and mentally handicapped or in old age homes.
The fruit of the forum’s efforts is clear. Three years ago, only 40 Christian soldiers served in the IDF. Figures for March 2015 show that the number has quadrupled to almost 110.
‘They came back as men’
One of the young Christians proudly protecting Israel is Jubran, Naddaf’s oldest son, who enlisted in December 2014. “In only one year I have seen tremendous growth in my son,” the priest confides. “He takes responsibility, he cares, he helps, and he loves this land and its people from his heart.”
Naddaf is not the only one singing the praises of the IDF for its positive impact on the lives of their sons. Sana Ashkar had no idea that her oldest son planned to join the army. She found out once he had already enlisted. “I was proud, of course,” she explains, “but it was difficult. He was my little boy.”
When Ashkar’s youngest son turned 18, he decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps to enlist. “Things were not always easy for them,” she remembers, “but they are happy they did it. So am I. I sent the IDF my boys and they came back to me as men.”
“You never know someone until you live with them,” she muses. “My sons call the Jews their brothers. And it is true. They lived together, served together and protected each other. There is now that bond.”
Sari and Saher Matar agree. The two Christian brothers from Nazareth are both former IDF soldiers. Sari, 27, served in a primarily Bedouin unit and walked away with the award for most outstanding soldier in his unit every year.
Saher, 22, joined the famous Golani infantry brigade. “I was the only Arab and the only Christian in my unit. But I was in the right place,” he explains. “I was with friends and brothers.”
When Operation Protective Edge raged during the summer of 2014, young Saher went to Gaza to defend Israel alongside his Golani friends and brothers. “I protected them and they protected me. We felt safe knowing we had each other’s backs.”
“I encourage many young people to join the IDF,” he says. “I tell them how good it is to be part of the army and to be part of this country. It is very important to me to show my loyalty to my country.”
Naddaf’s call for the youth of his flock to enlist goes beyond the realization of a shared duty. Israel’s Christians, he believes, should take their place as patriotic citizens, integrating into the society to participate and celebrate the rights and responsibilities of this vibrant democratic state.
“As Christian citizens of this land, we do not only want to take – that is not our way. We also want to give. By joining the army, we are telling our Jewish brothers and sisters that the Christian community is willing to stand with them, to protect with them and one day, enjoy peace with them.”
The IDF, Naddaf told a local media outlet, is the “melting pot” of Israeli society, and thus “the ticket” to full integration into that society.
But integration, he assures, does not mean a loss of identity. In fact, the Christian priest has been instrumental in forging a new, non-Arab identity for his flock.
“My people have mistakenly been called “Christian Arabs,” he wrote recently, “but the reality is that we are Arameans – descendants of people who lived here in Israel since biblical times.”
Following a public campaign, the Interior Ministry recognized the Arabic-speaking Christians of Israel as Aramean, as opposed to Arab or Palestinian.
“It is like returning home,” Naddaf confesses. “We are coming back to our roots, once again speaking our own language, Aramaic. We are learning about our ancestors, who lived in this land some 2,000 years ago – long before the Arabs came.”
The recognition of an ancient identity spanning more than two millennia also reinforces an important link, Naddaf says. “Christians have a bond with the Jews,” he said recently. “We have an allegiance with the Jewish people; with the Muslims we are neighbors. There is no covenant there.”
For Naddaf, the past four years in the limelight came with its own blessings and burdens. On the upside, a more public profile meant that an increasingly large audience heard and processed the missives of a Christian leader thriving in the Jewish state. Moreover, hundreds of young Christians heeded the call to enlist in the IDF and are reaping the benefits of integration into the Israeli society.
Yet the results came at a price. As soon as the Christian priest’s voice rang out in truth and unity, Muslim community leaders and Arab members of parliament responded with an equally passionate campaign of harassment and hate.
Both Naddaf as well as the young Christian soldiers were threatened, reviled and humiliated – on social media, in Arab news outlets, within their communities and often by their own neighbors and families.
Despite the calls for his execution – one allegedly offering a whopping reward of $300,000 – death threats and excommunication attempts by some of his colleagues in the church, Naddaf remains steadfast, thanking his backers, such as Pastor John Hagee and Christians United for Israel.
“I am not afraid,” he assures. “I am doing what God called me to do. I am speaking the truth, found in the Bible. And He is with me. So why will I be afraid?”
So what legacy does Father Gabriel Naddaf want to leave for his children? How would the Christian priest from Nazareth want to be remembered?
Naddaf ponders the question from a long moment, then grins joyously.
“I am not the important one here. They can forget me. But I want them to remember to live in the truth without fear. What I want for my children and their children is that they will love God – and love the land of Israel.”sign up to our newsletter
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