"We want young Christians to become totally integrated into Israeli society, which also entails shouldering their fair share of the burden of national service. Our future as a Christian minority is intertwined with that of the State of Israel. We want to give more to society and to contribute our share just like others do," says Gavriel Nadaf, a 39-year-old Arab Christian priest who is being persecuted by the Arab Israeli establishment. Nonetheless, the cold, hard numbers say that the majority is behind him.
There have been recent attempts to silence him. We spoke with him earlier this week before he was forbidden from speaking to the media. There are only a brave few Jews who dare back him, but the priest is defiant. "We want to connect with Jewish society in Israel," he said. "We feel secure in Israel. We see ourselves as citizens with equal rights as well as equal responsibilities and obligations. Most of the young Christians here view Israel as their country. This is the decisive period. If your youths see that Israel is fostering the Christians' engagement with Israeli society, then the world will spread forth. But if the state turns its back on us, the inciters will win."
The Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war, which has since descended into an ethnic, intra-religious conflict pitting Sunnis against Shi'ites, has conspired to create the impression that pan-Arab nationalism is on the wane. This is the same pan-Arab nationalism that was nurtured and propagated by the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and Syria's Hafez Assad, the father of the currently embattled president, Bashar Assad.
The rise of secular, socialist Arab nationalism came at the expense of radical Islamist elements who were pushed to the margins and denied positions of power and influence. In many instances, they were also persecuted and jailed. Now, Islam is on the rise.
The collapse of the pan-Arab worldview is also palpable among the Arabs of Israel. An increasing number of youths are opting to eschew the dictates of the Israeli Arab leaders who boycott the state, refuse army service, and rebel against the establishment. Instead, they are volunteering for civil service near their towns. In a few cases, they perform national and even military service. They do so despite the angry reactions of the majority of those in their immediate environment, including family and friends.
The members of the Greek Orthodox church in Israel -- the constituency that we tend to refer to as "Arab Christians" -- are keenly sensitive to the collapse of pan-Arabism. There are over 130,000 Greek Orthodox Christians living in Israel, most of them in Haifa, Nazareth, and the Galilee. Some are scattered in the Jerusalem metropolitan area.
In recent years, particularly since the 2010 upheavals began in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, there has been an increase in the number of Christian Arabs who seek to enlist in the Israel Defense Force. Much of this is due to the work done by the "Forum for the Enlistment of the Christian Community," which was founded by a group of Christian conscripts who concluded their military service.
These guys were subjected to harassment and scorn from the larger Arab society due to their decision to serve in the IDF. Now they are advocating for the creation of a more fitting, appropriate enlistment track for more young Christians who wish to be drafted and who see themselves as loyal citizens of the state and an inseparable part of its society with the attendant rights and obligations.
The most prominent member of the forum is the persecuted Nazareth priest. After he was ordained by the Greek Orthodox Church, he then served as a judge in the religious court. He was also a spokesperson for the Greek patriarch in Israel and a priest in churches across Israel, including Haifa, Acre, and Nazareth.
Amongst young Christians who are in favor of conscription, Nadaf's presence is considered crucial to the cause given his status in the community. For years, he has encouraged young Arab Christians to enlist in the army. The forum on which he serves also includes Christian soldiers and commanders in the reserves as well as Christian businessmen who support full integration with Jewish society. These business leaders contribute funds to pro-enlistment campaigns that have thus far been successful in encouraging a greater number of young Christian men and women to enlist.
Nadaf takes great pride in the fact that Christian women as well as men enlist in the army. In the IDF, there are currently two Christian Arab women who hold an officer's rank. Among the men, there is a large number of officers.
"We support the integration of community members into Israeli society alongside an equal sharing of obligations and duties," he said. "Israel is a multi-cultural mosaic. It's not made up just of Jews and Arabs. We want to engage with Jewish society in Israel. We feel secure in the state of Israel and we see ourselves as citizens of the state with all the attendant rights as well as obligations."
"In the Christian community, there is a large pool of potential conscripts," he said. "Most of the community members see themselves as Israelis. We are part of this society in every sense of the word. Most of the young Christians -- and not just those in Nazareth -- feel that this is their country. This is a genuine feeling. They want to contribute and they want to receive. This is what the young Christians want, and I'm talking about most of them."
"While the subject of IDF enlistment began to gain more attention recently, it's a good thing that it did because now everybody is talking about this," he said. "Unfortunately, there was always a sense that Christians couldn't express their opinions in public. It was as if Christians weren't allowed to talk, but this is changing now."
"This is a critical period now," Nadaf said. "Everyone is watching how the state of Israel treats the topic of defending Christians. If they see that Israel is standing shoulder to shoulder with the Christians who are eager to engage Israeli society, the good news that begins here will spread. If the state turns its back on us, the inciters and the haters will win."
Squaring off against the church
Nadaf is married with two adolescent children. His willingness to publicly advocate army service for Christian Arabs has caused upset for his family, which has experienced little quiet since then. The positions advocated by Nadaf and his colleagues in the forum are an open challenge to the leadership of the Arab sector, among them its representatives in the Knesset as well as those in the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee.
These agencies and officials adamantly reject any gestures of solidarity from the Muslims or Christian communities with the Israeli establishment. They oppose Arab youths' volunteering for national or civic service within the Arab townships and municipalities. Their vehement opposition to military service or any other activity undertaken for the benefit of the defense and security establishment goes without saying.
Many Christians who do not agree with Nadaf's positions have ostracized him. The Nadaf family receives threats to their lives on a daily basis. When they walk in the streets in public, they are showered with epithets and expletives. Petitions have been signed denouncing them. Among the signatories are the representatives of the patriarch, Theophilos III, who claimed that Father Nadaf was speaking on his own behalf and that his views did not represent the official stance of the church.
All around Nazareth, there have been notices, signs, and posters condemning him. Due to the increased security risk, Nadaf has been forced to hire bodyguards who surround him whenever he walks into his church. The concern for the safety of his wife and children refuses to yield.
Despite all of this, he's not giving up. He recently gave an interview to an Arab-language television station in which he sought to explain his opinions in favor of integrating the Christian community into mainstream Israeli society, including conscription. As a result of the interview, the anger and rage toward him grew more intense. Nonetheless, he never considered keeping quiet or recanting.
Not only are Christians enraged with him, but Father Nadaf has also incurred the wrath of Islamist elements that have formed an alliance with the Christians to counter him. These hostile elements emanate from the Palestinian Authority as well as foreign Arab governments who have warned Nadaf that he would be held responsible for any harm that befalls the Christians of Gaza, Jericho, Bethlehem, and other countries. Nadaf was warned that his call to serve in the "Zionist army" would provoke those who are hostile to Israel.
No turning back now
The specter of hostile Arab elements harming Christians living in the Palestinian Authority and other Arab countries as revenge for Father Nadaf's calls and the forum's efforts to bolster Christian Arab enlistment in the IDF prompted the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Jerusalem to summon him for a disciplinary hearing. It was an hours-long meeting that took place on Tuesday of this week.
"Despite the pressure and lobbying from Palestinian officials and others who urged the patriarch to fire me and strip me of my priesthood, it didn't happen," Nadaf said following the meeting. "I adhered to my position, and I still have my job."
Nonetheless, the priest said that he was not permitted to give interviews to the press. All of his activities with the forum will be undertaken on his own volition and he is to present his opinions solely as his own.
"I can understand the patriarch's position and his request for Father Nadaf to keep a low profile and limit his statements due to the concern for our Christian brothers in Arab states and the Palestinian Authority," Shady Halul, an associate of Father Nadaf, told Israel Hayom.
"The patriarch told Father Nadaf that he is not an opponent of the state of Israel," he said. "On the contrary, he is very appreciative of the security enjoyed by Christians in Israel. He did ask Nadaf to tone down his statements concerning his work with the forum so as to ensure the safety of Christians in the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states."
According to Nadaf associates, despite the heavy pressure applied by the church and others, his work will continue as long as he feels sufficiently secure in his safety. "Even now, the priest is afraid to leave his home due to the threats to his life," Halul said. "Our fear is that the priest will bow to these threats and incitement against him and will announce his resignation from all of his positions, or that the patriarch will capitulate to threats from Palestinian officials and others and announce that he is firing Father Nadaf."
"This cannot be allowed to happen," the source said. "If Father Nadaf decides that he's had enough, this will be the state of Israel's loss. The priest represents the support, the encouragement, and the stamp of approval for our youths who see themselves as fully Israeli, who want to integrate into Israeli society and enlist in the army and contribute. They know that there is a spiritual figure behind them, and this has great importance."
Halul pauses for a moment. "The priest's work in the forum is very important," he said. "We escort the young Christian boys and girls who are candidates for the draft at every stage in the process. We keep tabs on them before conscription, during army service, and after they are discharged. The assistance from Father Nadaf is tremendous. They go to him for almost everything."
"We see ourselves as Israelis in every sense of the word, and we want the state to do more for us and help us more," he said. "Our youths need to know that there is a spiritual figure with them at all times when they go to the army, just like there is in the Druze, Bedouin, and Circassian communities."
According to Halul, one of Nadaf's initiatives is to cancel the segregation between Jewish and Christian conscripts.
"We don't like to hear our young people who finish their army service come and tell us that they left because they placed them with the Bedouin battalion even though they have nothing in common whatsoever with the Bedouin," he said. "The mentality of the Christians is entirely different. Our behaviors are different."
"Thanks to the work of Father Nadaf and the forum, the Christians will be drafted and will serve alongside Jewish soldiers," he said. "They won't be sent along by the Minority Affairs Branch of the IDF. The priest and I believe that if we live in the state of Israel and we enjoy all of the rights and privileges, we also have obligations to fulfill. If we don't serve as loyal citizens, then we would be traitors."
Halul is growing more animated as the discussion continues. "I am a son of this land and we see ourselves as Israelis in the true sense of the word," he said. "The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee doesn't represent us, and we have nothing to do with the Palestinian narrative. Unfortunately, many of our coreligionists in the Christian community blindly went along with the slogans spouted by the Palestinians, who in effect expropriated the Christian narrative and merged it with the Palestinian narrative, like in the case of the expulsion of villagers from Ikrit and Biram."
"I would ask all of those who are inciting against us, including those from the Christian community -- what kind of security do the Arabs and Muslims provide?" he said. "Look at how they are slaughtering each other in Syria and the other Arab countries. Why should they care about us Christians? We need to fend for ourselves. In the meantime, the only one that is giving us safety and security is the state of Israel."
"The problem is that the state doesn't understand the extent to which we are in danger," he said. "I call on the leadership of this country to help us gain equality for the rest of the citizens of this state. Don't turn your backs on us. The Christians in Israel are loyal citizens who love and admire the state."
"We don't enlist in the army and contribute just for the hell of it," he said. "We will continue to enlist with pride, and contribute despite everything. And we'll do it in bigger numbers."