This article was published before allegations of harassment against Father Gabriel Naddaf came to light.
The theme of this year’s torch lighting ceremony for Independence Day is that of courageous citizens, and it is therefore clear why the decision was made to include Father Gabriel Naddaf on the list of torch lighters.
Since 2012, the Greek Orthodox priest from the Galilee has been an indefatigable campaigner for Christian Arab integration into Israeli society, principally through encouraging enlistment in the IDF, in the face of bitter and vitriolic opposition from large segments of the Arab community.
Opposed by the political leadership of the Arab sector, including a Christian MK, as well as elements of the Christian clerical leadership in Israel, and having faced numerous threats to his life, Naddaf has nevertheless continued to encourage and promote what he believes is a process critical to the very security of the Christian population in Israel.
He has also spoken out where others have remained silent on the ongoing persecution of Christians in the wider Middle East, condemning Church leaders in the region for failing to speak out against the barbarism of ISIS and the other regimes which have persecuted Christians in recent years.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post ahead of Independence Day, Naddaf outlined the reasons why he believes so passionately that Christians must integrate into Israeli society, and spoke about what he describes as the exploitation of the Christian population by the Muslim Arab sector.
The priest is adamant that his efforts are not a campaign, but rather a process born out of the historical and spiritual roots of Christianity in the Land of Israel, and of the reality of the Middle East.
‘We are children of the Holy Land. Here the history of Christianity was formed, from here it sprouted and spread out all over the world. This is the source of Christianity,” says Naddaf.
“We have a spiritual, theological, and biological connection to the land. Jesus was a Jew, born to a Jewish family, was born in Jewish Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, and his grave is in Jerusalem, as is written in the New Testament.”
And the priest, like many others, has also claimed an identity, different from the label of “Christian Arab,” which many within the community believe has been imposed upon them. Naddaf and those of his mind-set define themselves as Arameans, an ancient people of the Levant whose language was spoken by several ancient nations including Jews and early Christians (including Jesus) at the time when Christianity was sprouting.
This identity was legally recognized by the State of Israel in 2014 for the purposes of official documentation.
Naddaf’s rejection of Arab identity and his focus on the historic ties of Christians with Jews and the Land of Israel are intrinsic to his campaign for Christians to integrate into Israeli society.
The tumult in the region should serve as a wakeup call to all Christians in Israel given the atrocities committed against their co-religionists in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and beyond by Islamist regimes, organizations and armed groups.
“The Middle East is emptying out of its Christians. So what should you do when you see this happening to your brothers next door? Should you wait till this comes to you, or do something so that the Christians will be strong here? “I say to Christians in Israel, you have security here, you have democracy, civil rights and respect, and this doesn’t happen in the Arab Islamic states in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Authority.”
Essentially, Naddaf argues that the rejection of Christians in Muslim lands in the Middle East which the region has witnessed since the upheavals of what was originally labeled as the Arab Spring in 2011, makes it all the more important for Christians in Israel to recognize the Jewish state as a sanctuary for them and to embrace that reality rather than, as he describes it, allowing themselves to be used as pawns in the ideological and national struggles of people he says Christians are unconnected with.
Despite the situation Christians find themselves in within the broader Middle East and Israel in particular, he notes that they are nevertheless still disunited, belonging to different Christian denominations and churches, and looking toward different communal and political leaders.
Naddaf describes the 163,000 Christians in Israel as a minority within a minority, and says that this status, combined with the divided nature of the community, have made it weak.
“So now is the time to get up and to integrate, we have to be involved in the security of our state. Integration is power.
When you integrate, you connect to something, when you tie your fate to the fate of another and you learn from him, and help each other, this gives power.
If you remain alone then you have no power.
“We live here on this land and so we need to serve the army which protects and defends us. I knew this process would be difficult, that the things I do would anger the Arab leaders here, who don’t take care of Christians at all because they are not interested in them.”
In 2012, Naddaf established the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum (ICRF).
The idea, Naddaf says, was to demonstrate both the importance for Christians to take part in their own defense, and to also advance the cause of Christian integration into Israeli society to make the community an accepted component of the Israeli mosaic, unlike the outsider status they have in the wider Middle East.
Before ICRF was formed, there were approximately 30 to 35 Arabic-speaking Christians who joined the IDF every year. Naddaf says there are now between 150 and 200 signing up every year. In addition there were in 2015 some 369 Christians, men and women, serving in the police force, while the priest says that approximately 600 young Christian women now volunteer for the national service program every year.
According to ICRF, some 1,500 Christian youths graduate high school every year, so while the number of IDF volunteers is still relatively low in comparison, the enlistment rate of young Christian women in the national service program indicates that the campaign has great potential.
Naddaf estimates that approximately 70 percent of the Christian population would be open to increasing integration within Israeli society, while 30 percent is tightly bound to their Arab and Palestinian identity, and do not see themselves as Christian even if they are registered as such.
His activities have garnered intense opposition. He has himself received several death threats and his son was physically beaten in Nazareth due to his father’s outspoken campaign for Christian IDF enlistment. Christian IDF soldiers and women who perform national service are frequently harassed and attacked.
Naddaf has also been banned from the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth close to where he lives, and has been the subject of a political campaign by Arab Knesset members to have the Greek Orthodox church in Israel fire him from his position as head of the church in Yafia, a suburb of Nazareth.
It is clear that Naddaf’s opponents also understand his dictum that “integration is power,” which explains their vitriolic opposition to Christian integration and that of the Muslim Arab sector in general.
He argues that Arab leaders in Israel do not care about the Christian community, but instead use it as a pawn in their battle against the Jewish state. Naddaf argued that the Arab leadership has no interest in the welfare of Christians, but is eager to enlist the Christian community and the power of the Christian leadership for its own ends in the political conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
He also points to the decline of the Christian population in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the emptying out of Christians from Bethlehem and its environs as further proof that Christians are unloved by the Palestinian nationalists.
“For four years now Christians have been slaughtered in the Middle East, and no Arab leader here has opened his mouth,” he said. “They haven’t condemned it, they haven’t called for demonstrations as they did when [the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohamed] Morsi fell in Egypt.
“So what does this say? They are using the Christian community, the weak part of the sector, as a tool in their conflict with the Jews. These MKs are exploiting Christians and have done so for many years.”
Naddaf acknowledges that in Israel, a worrying phenomenon has sprung up: Jewish extremists who carry out “price tag” attacks against Christian holy sites and property. There have been several arson attacks on churches, the most notorious of which was the attack against the renowned The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in 2015, along with repeated graffiti and vandalism at Christian sites.
The priest insists that the police and law enforcement authorities need to eradicate this phenomenon and says that it should be more vigorously condemned by Israeli society.
But he adds that the attacks are committed by extremists at the margins of Israeli society, and because all societies have such radicals, the issue should not be blown out of proportion.
“It’s good to condemn these actions.
But I would also like to hear the voice of Christian protest against what is happening in the Palestinian Authority to Christians, and to hear Christians shouting against what is being done to Christians all over the Middle East, who are being slaughtered, beheaded, raped and burned alive, while Christian holy places are being destroyed across the region.
The state’s relationship with the minorities inside its borders has been troubled from the very beginning because of the political conflict with the Arabs and Palestinians who are ethnic kin to Israeli citizens.
Naddaf’s message is that the Israeli Christians should put the political conflict behind them and embrace the one state in the region where they have physical security, civil rights, and the ability to live prosperously.
Due to their strong connection to the Land of Israel, the priest says that Christians in the country must embrace the State of Israel as home because of their historic and spiritual ties, as well as their need for a safe sanctuary in their ancient heartland.sign up to our newsletter