The Christian community in Israel just received great news: 40 Arab Christian male and female college students, all of whom have completed military or national service, have won year-long scholarships.
Father Gabriel Naddaf, the leader of this community, worked in conjunction with Yechiel Eckstein, the head of the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews, to aid the Arab Christian students.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 166,000 Christians currently live in Israel, comprising 2% of the population.
As of December 2014, 79.1% of Israeli Christians were of Arab descent, while the rest were mostly relatives of Jews who made aliya in the 1990s under the Law of Return from the former Soviet Union, and their children.
A historic change occurred in the Israeli Christian Arab community in August 2012, when the Christian Community Mobilization Forum was created to encourage all streams of Christian Arabs to enlist in the IDF. The Christian Arab community in Israel is very pro-Israel and they advocate full integration into Israeli society, as well as returning to their Christian Aramean roots.
For Christian Israelis, carrying out full service in the IDF is an integral part of their lives, and until the late 1990s about 30 Christian Arabs volunteered to serve in the IDF each year.
But the moment three Christian Arab priests from the forum – Naddaf among them – joined forces with the Defense Ministry in an effort to promote the enlistment of Christians in national service, the numbers skyrocketed. In 2013, over 130 Christian Arabs enlisted in the IDF, and in both 2014 and 2015, 110 Christians volunteered to serve.
Despite the slight dip in the last two years that followed the strong start, the number of Christian volunteers for national service and recruits at the Israel Police continued its steep ascent. The forum predicts that these numbers will reach an all-time high in 2016.
Despite these encouraging numbers, Naddaf’s life as a Greek Orthodox priest has not been easy since he became involved with the forum over the past few years. Previously, Naddaf served as a judge in his community’s religious courts, as well as a spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, since joining efforts with the Israeli defense ministry, Naddaf has been attacked numerous times by Islamist extremists and Palestinian politicians who continuously call for his resignation. As a result of this pressure, two other priests working with the forum decided to drop out.
Naddaf, on the other hand, announced that he would not capitulate and actually intensified his cooperation with the Defense Ministry.
In response, attempts were made to excommunicate Naddaf: his family members were attacked verbally and his son was beaten up. Someone posted a “wanted” sign on his Facebook page, a bloody rag was left on the family’s doorstep, and his family members have been forced to live under constant threat and use police escort when going places. Despite all of this, Naddaf has not been deterred from continuing his activity to encourage Christian Arabs to participate in Israeli society.
Last year, the IFCJ funded the opening of an office for the Christian community, and this year it will continue to fund scholarships for joint projects with the forum, such as a recent Christmas celebration, in which Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Naddaf and Eckstein all participated.
During the celebration, the Aramean community publicly recognized volunteers at the forum for their hard work and dedication, and commended outstanding soldiers for their service. The IFCJ has allocated NIS 400,000 to promote Christian Arab participation in the IDF and national service, including workshops and guidance sessions.
Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel will be chairing a meeting, in which she will present an enlistment plan for Arab Christian youth for the coming years.
“I value and appreciate the incredible contribution the Aramean Christian community is making to the State of Israel and the IDF,” Gamliel said. “Just as I have done in the past, I will continue to offer my support as minister to the Aramean community, which is a shining example of active citizenship.”
“Our connection with the IFCJ has played an extremely important role in helping us strengthen our relationship with other Christians around the world,” said Amit Barak, the Forum’s project manager. “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.
We show them how the Israeli government welcomes constructive criticism instead of snuffing it out like all the other countries in the Middle East do.”
“We are currently experiencing a momentous historic occasion and we must not miss this incredible opportunity,” Naddaf proclaimed.
“If we fail, we might not ever be given another chance. Israel is a small, complex country made up by a number of different ethnic groups. But we will overcome the obstacles, not because we have no choice, but because it is our destiny to live together as brothers.
We are fighting to eradicate the hatred towards the State of Israel and replace it with love for the land of Israel. And the way we show our love is by giving of ourselves.”
“Serving the in the IDF is our entry ticket to Israeli society. We need to contribute to our country just like everyone else,” Naddaf added.
“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.”Translated by Hannah Hochner.sign up to our newsletter