Israel is home to 130,000 Arab Christian citizens. A small percentage of the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim Arabic-speaking minority, these Christians have until recently been united with Muslims in identifying as Palestinians in opposition to Israel’s Jewish majority. But that may be starting to change, as some Christians have begun calling for a reconsideration of the community’s relations with Israel’s mainstream.
Christians in the Middle East don’t have it all that easy. They find that many in the Muslim majority don’t trust them, and in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria, Christians are frequently attacked by Islamic extremists. In the face of that discriminatory reality, some have concluded that Israel may be the freest and safest place in the region to be a Christian. So they are now seeking to draw closer to Israel’s Jewish community and are calling for the integration of Arab Christians into the Jewish state.
“Israel is my country,” the Rev. Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest, told The Wall Street Journal last month. “We enjoy the Israeli democracy and have to respect it and fight for it.”
Father Naddaf leads a small movement to increase the number of Arab Christians who serve in the Israel Defense Forces. The current number is 137 as compared with 208 Arab Muslims serving in the IDF, according to The Associated Press. Backers of a new Arab Christian party even favor drafting community members into the IDF.
At most, this amounts to a modest recalibration of the Israeli Arab community. None-theless, it is a move that the Israeli government has embraced and should continue to embrace and nurture. Israel stands to gain from the participation of vibrant, educated citizens — Arab Christians score higher than Israeli Jews on academic achievement tests. And we anticipate that the Arab Israeli population will gain from this as well.
In a larger sense, the new Christian awakening can be seen as a part of an increasing friendship with Jews and growing support for the State of Israel. In May, Pope Francis is expected to reinforce these trends when he visits Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. Invited by both President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the pope is likely to extend the era of Jewish-Catholic good feeling while renewing the Vatican’s call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
When one adds these positive trends to the strong political and financial support given to Israel by American evangelical Protestants, it is clear that the Christian awakening to Israel is real, ongoing, significant and very helpful. We welcome it.