Israel's Christians struggle to maintain their presence in the Holy Land

Father Rafic Nahra: Christian denominations in Israel need to work together

 Palm Sunday service in Jerusalem (photo credit: All Israel News Staff)
Palm Sunday service in Jerusalem
(photo credit: All Israel News Staff)

It is going to take unity between denominations and for Christians to gain a deeper knowledge of their faith in order to enable them to not just stay, but also to thrive in Israel.

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That was the assessment of Father Rafic Nahra, who is going to be ordained as a bishop for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem at the end of this month. 

As we began Holy Week for Catholics and Pentecostals, ALL ISRAEL NEWS spoke with Nahra about Israel’s Christian minority which he has been serving in varying capacities since 2004. Nahra, born in Egypt and raised in Lebanon, received his Ph.D. in engineering in France before switching gears and being ordained a priest. One of his many roles since arriving in the Holy Land was as the Patriarchal Vicar of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic congregation in Jerusalem – a community which fills a unique need here. 

According to official statistics, some 185,000 out of the 9.3 million people in Israel are Christian and 80% of them are Arab.

During seasons such as Christmas and Easter, the local Christians and their centuries-long presence in the region – dating back to the time of Jesus – are more visible in Israel.

But as tends to happen every few years, the Christian holiday coincides with and is overshadowed by the Jewish Passover and the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan – bringing all holy days to a head in Jerusalem simultaneously.

This in itself reflects the Christian existence in Israel, which can be marginalized amid larger events and concerns.

Nahra was open about the struggles that Christians here face, the challenges the Church has in safeguarding the community and the need for unity among all denominations. He believes it is important to work with all Christians – traditional as well as Evangelical together – in order to overcome divisions and build identity. 

But he was also positive that true Christianity could captivate the hearts of the next generation of Christians if they had relevant and engaging examples of faith in action.

CHALLENGES CHRISTIANS FACE IN ISRAEL

In some ways, the challenges facing Christians in Israel are not much different than they are elsewhere, said Nahra, who is based in Nazareth. Secularization plagues Israeli society – and the Christian community is not immune.

“Some of the difficulty is common to all the western world, not just Israel. Society is very much secular,” Nahra noted. “Parents have to work hard to find a job, and religion could become secondary.”

Christian identity can fall prey to the Israeli work and school week, which is Sunday through Thursday. This means many Christians who have regular jobs, whether in the Jewish and Muslim sectors, sometimes forgo Church services on Sunday. 

Nahra also expressed little hope that “outward expressions” of Christianity would keep youngsters engaged in the Church over the long haul.

“We are intent on keeping a visible social presence – such as a Christmas tree and social events... I’m not so convinced that is the answer,” he said. 

The younger generation needs a greater depth to their beliefs instead, he said.

“It is not a matter of how to protect our identity as Christians – the youth will come if they meet people with a deep faith, people who really are full of life and give meaning to life and exciting perspectives for life,” Nahra said. 

If Church leaders can manage that, he said, “real Christian identity will be kept.”

Father Rafic Nahra (Credit: LATIN PATRIARCHATE OF JERUSALEM)Father Rafic Nahra (Credit: LATIN PATRIARCHATE OF JERUSALEM)

FITTING IN WHILE MAINTAINING UNIQUE IDENTITY

The tiny Christian population is also drained by discrimination which is present in Israel, Nahra said, though only to the extent that it is in other countries and among different populations. Nahra said that a Christian Israeli might be passed over for a job in favor of a Jewish Israeli, but noted that the same would likely occur in France, where he lived, to minority populations and perhaps even in Israel between the different Jewish backgrounds.

So when young Israeli Christians find life more comfortable in the West – where most countries are majority Christian – many stay there.

“For Christians, we are sometimes less attached religiously to the land than Muslims and Jews, and this becomes a problem,”Nahra said.

For example, some young students who study overseas choose to stay there and don't come back. With little connection to the land and the political conflict, as opposed to Jews and Muslims living in Israel, sometimes it is just easier for the Christians to fade away. 

“Most of [the young people] are satisfied socially [in Israel], but at the same time, the difficulty for our youth is identity,” he said. 

“It’s a dilemma for them: They are Arab, they want to mix with Jewish society, but they want to keep their Arab identity,” Nahra explained. “Some of them would like to serve in the army, but it’s a problem sometimes with their family. Some want to, others don’t want to – it’s not an easy situation.”

“We are today trying to work on it, to address our youth,” Nahra said, but “society is changing so much.”

WHAT THE CHURCH IS DOING

With this in mind, the Latin Patriarch in Israel is working to strengthen the Christian community by offering theological education for lay people. Nahra said it is an opportunity for adults to rediscover their faith and in turn enrich religious instruction for the next generation. 

This can enrich homilies and provide congregants with teachings that bear fruit.

Nahra is also promoting unity between the churches. He noted that many “small communities are full of life, but we don’t always walk together.”

This is important because even though the number of Christians in Israel is stable, it is still small, standing at just 2% of the population and comprised of a vast array of denominations including Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Maronite, Coptic and Protestant.

While Christians in the West have the luxury of grouping themselves into denominations and still not feeling isolated, Christians in Israel are a divided minority.

Nahra believes that if churches focus on what they agree on, they will see renewal.

“If we join our hands it could be more effective,” Nahra said. “We are trying to work on this – to bring people more people together. We can collaborate on many things, even though our liturgy is different, we can work together, pray together, even with Evangelical churches.”

With this call for unity and a humble approach, Nahra – whose current responsibilities will be expanded in his new role as bishop – said he hopes for the unction of the Holy Spirit when the church prays for him and officially commissions him on April 30.