Father Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest in Yafia, near Nazareth, made news in 2012 when he publicly urged Israeli Christians of Arab descent to join the Israel Defense Forces. Since then, he’s become a lightning rod for encouraging Christians to integrate themselves into Israeli society rather than maintain an Arab identity that typically entails hostility to their country. In the United States in recent days, Naddaf spoke to pro-Israel groups, urging Christians to support the Jewish state against anti-Christian, anti-Jewish Islamists throughout the Middle East.
Of Israel’s 1.3 million Arabs, 160,000 are Christians, Naddaf told one Washington audience. Shifting seamlessly from Aramaic to Arabic to Greek while an interpreter provided English translations, he recounted how the Arab conquest 1,400 years ago “erased” the identity of what was then a mostly Christian population. Tall, bearded, and imposing in his black clerical garb, with a large gold cross around his neck, Naddaf urged Christians in Israel to embrace the Aramean ethnicity, which the Israeli government recently recognized.
Many Arabs in Israel denounce Naddaf. His teenage son, who plans to join the IDF, was attacked with a metal rod last year and now has a bounty of $300,000 on his head. Two Catholic priests who joined Naddaf’s initiative reneged when threatened, but father and son are undeterred.
Israeli Muslims and Christians are not required to perform national service. But since Naddaf’s campaign began, Christian volunteers for the IDF have increased from about 35 recruits a year to 150, 90 percent of them for combat units.
“In the Middle East today, there is one country where Christians are affectionately granted freedom of expression, freedom of worship, and security,” Naddaf told his Washington audience. “In Israel, Christians enjoy good education, employment, welfare, health care, and high socioeconomic standing. In Israel, Christians have freedom, which no Muslim power has ever offered us.”
The Christian population of Israel was only 57,000 in the 1970s. Its rapid growth reflects the fact that “Christians in Israel believe the safest place for them is Israel,” Naddaf said. He urged skeptics to “come and check for yourself,” to expose themselves to something besides the “lies and propaganda in the media.” Those with a religious vocation have a special obligation to do this, he said. “A religious man needs to say the truth first because he reads and believes the words of God. If he won’t say the truth, who will?”
Naddaf explained his vision of Jewish-Christian collaboration in theological terms; his own calling was prompted partly by the heavy toll the Arab Spring took on Christians. “We and the Jews are partners,” he said. “Christianity was born from Judaism. Jesus came to continue the religion, not replace it. Jesus was born in a Jewish town, Bethlehem. Our faith is a joint faith with the Jews. Jews were persecuted throughout history, and today the same is true for Christians. Our fates are the same and we must join hands and work together.”
Naddaf emphasized that Christians fear Islamic rule more than Israeli rule. He cited the continuing exodus of Christians from the Palestinian Territories: Only 1,500 remain in Gaza under Hamas, and Bethlehem is down to 2 percent Christian. If Israeli occupation were so terrible, surely the Muslim majority would be in flight. “Why,” he asked, “are the only people fleeing the occupation Christian and not Muslim?”
Western and global apathy toward Christian suffering is a “historic sin,” in Naddaf’s view. “I expect the Christian world to support the minority being persecuted,” he said. “I expect the world that flies the flag of human rights not to support Islamic states.” He inveighed against foreign aid that ends up buttressing Islamist indoctrination and terror.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. “If terror infiltrates Israel and makes Israel fall, it will be a disaster for the world,” warned Naddaf, who sees the present conflict as a “war of ideology and religion” that “wants to make the whole world bend to sharia.”
Naddaf cited a poll by the University of Haifa showing 75 percent of Christians in Israel support their own greater integration into Israeli society. He speculated that the remaining 25 percent were nominal Christians, uninformed about their faith: “When you call yourself Christian but oppose what’s written in the Bible, you are in opposition to Christianity.”