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Caught in the Middle

A minority within a minority, Israel’s Arab Christians muddle through

On an unseasonably warm day in late November, thousands of worshipers from all over Israel, Palestine and Jordan jammed the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth to celebrate Mass. Radiant sunshine explained only in part the glow on their faces — the rest was joy. This was no ordinary liturgy, but the rite of beatification of a Palestinian woman who in 1880 founded the Dominican Sisters of the Most Holy Rosary of Jerusalem, commonly known as the Rosary Sisters.

Blessed Marie Alphonsine Danil Ghattas was born Soultaneh Maria Ghattas in Jerusalem in 1843. Called to the religious life, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition at the age of 14 and, after her profession, worked among the people of Bethlehem. With the encouragement and assistance of her spiritual director, Father Joseph Tannous, this zealous catechist and educator eventually established a religious community of women dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Today, Blessed Marie Alphonsine’s spiritual daughters run schools, catechetical programs, clinics and orphanages throughout the Middle East, often under the most trying of circumstances.

The Mass reached a crescendo when a huge portrait of the newly beatified was unveiled. The worshipers burst into song and thunderous applause. Some, including more than 300 Rosary Sisters, wiped away tears of joy and gratitude.

“The fact the Holy Father recognizes the sanctity of a Palestinian Arab nun draws the attention of the world’s Catholics to the Holy Land,” said Archbishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and all Galilee. “Church buildings are important, but the human church, the living Christians here, are much more important.”

The city of Nazareth, which lies 16 miles from the Sea of Galilee, is located in Israel’s North District and serves as an economic center. Most of its 65,000 residents are Arabs, roughly two-thirds of whom are Muslim and a third Christian. Nazareth is also a part of the Galilee, a region that includes the numerous cities, towns and villages near and along the lake’s shores. Steeped in history, it is in the Galilee’s verdant hills and valleys that Jesus lived, preached and performed miracles.

Today, about half a million Arab Israeli citizens call the Galilee home. Christians, Druze and Muslims, they live together with their Jewish neighbors, who also number about half a million, making it the country’s most diverse region.

Unlike the millions of Palestinian Arabs who live in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, Arabs who live in the Galilee are Israeli citizens and enjoy its benefits and liberties and also share in its responsibilities. They do not have to go through checkpoints to get to school or work, and with their Israeli passports, they can travel unrestricted overseas. They also have access to a generally higher standard of living, including better education and health care, than anywhere else in the Middle East.

But as Israelis, the Galilee’s indigenous Arabs struggle to navigate their complex identity in an all-too-often hostile world. They are rooted in their ancestral land, but they remain ambivalent about their country.

Nowhere is this identity crisis experienced more intensely than among Israel’s Arab Christians. Counting members of all Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant communities, Arab Christians number less than 150,000 Israelis, a mere 2 percent of the total population of 7.5 million. In contrast, more than 16 percent of the population is Muslim, making the Israeli Arab Christian community a minority within a minority.

Arabs are not the only Christians in Israel. An estimated 300,000 people live in Israel according to the Law of Return, but they are officially classified as non-Jewish. Who are they? Generally, most come from post-Soviet Eastern Europe with family backgrounds that are Orthodox Christian. In addition to foreign church personnel, many Christian guest workers — Filipinos, Moldavians and Romanians — live and work in Israel.

Most of Israel’s Arab Christians live in the Galilee, with as many as 110,000 calling it home. Similar to other Christians throughout the Middle East, they have the lowest birthrate in Israel and tend to emigrate in disproportionately greater numbers. Yet, bucking statistics for now, the community remains relatively stable.

“Life is simpler and better in the Galilee,” explained Irene Hanna Kassabri, a bubbly Latin Catholic who teaches music and English at an elementary school of the Latin Patriarchate in Jaffa-Nazareth, a suburb of Nazareth, which enrolls Christians, Druze and Muslims. A former resident of East Jerusalem, she moved to the mixed Christian-Muslim town 17 years ago after she married her husband, who hails from the Galilee.

“In Jerusalem you feel the political problems a lot more, and it influences people’s way of thinking,” continued Mrs. Kassabri.

Watching proudly as a group of young students, dressed in traditional embroidered Palestinian dress, enters the stage of the school’s auditorium, Mrs. Kassabri said she has much more contact with Jews in the Galilee than she ever had in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.

“We have a supermarket here and Jews enter freely and say hello,” she said of an act that would be unheard of in polarized Jerusalem. “Our children learn Hebrew in school. When I first arrived I didn’t speak Hebrew, which was a problem. My daughter is in high school and I want her to specialize in Hebrew. It will be good for her future.”

Schools in the Galilee maintain very high standards — one reason Israel’s Arab Christian students consistently outscore local Jewish and Muslim peers on college-entrance exams. Many Arab Christians study at Israel’s top universities, or go abroad to study.

But when it comes time for these same stellar students to find employment in Israel, or settle down in predominantly Jewish areas, they often discover that as Arabs they can neither get their foot in the door nor secure a mortgage on a home. And while Israeli law guarantees equal rights in housing and employment, the reality for many Israeli Arabs — Christian and Muslim — can be frustrating to say the least.

To Muslims, we’re Christians. To Jews, we’re Arabs,” said Jamal Shahade, whose Melkite Greek Catholic family runs the House of Grace, a halfway house in Haifa for high-risk youth, poor families and ex-convicts of all creeds.

“[For a Christian], Israel is a lot better than other Middle Eastern countries, but you can still feel like a second-class citizen.”

Mr. Shahade, whose devout parents, Kamil and Agnes, instilled in him a deep sense of understanding, said that Israeli Arabs do not always receive the same government benefits as their Jewish compatriots.

For instance, some government benefits, such as preferred mortgages and student loans, are offered only to young Israelis who have completed their compulsory military service. Aside from the Druze and some Bedouin, most Christian and Muslim Arabs refuse to serve in the military out of respect for their Palestinian neighbors, to whom many are related.

Mr. Shahade added that the inequity goes beyond benefits tied to military service.

“The government takes land from Arab villages to build factories and roads and all-Jewish communities,” he said. “It’s harder to get building permits to add on to our houses. There’s a double standard, but I feel we are respected for being a peaceful community.”

Leaders of the various churches also complain that the government does not accord their institutions the same rights and privileges as it does their Jewish counterparts. The Israeli government, said Msgr. Salim Soussan, spiritual leader of Haifa’s some 3,700 Maronite Catholics, has not extended tax-free status to our institutions. They also deny visas to our clergy. We have been trying to bring in a sister from Lebanon, so that the sister who is already here will not be alone, but so far, nothing.”

Successive Israeli governments have publicly acknowledged some of these inequalities, promising to fill the gaps. But many community leaders say the government still has a long way to go. Observers, for example, acknowledge the government is beginning to grant more visas to Catholic clergy. But they point out that visas (especially to Arab clergy) are now restricted to a single entry, as opposed to the former multiple-entry visas they once received, and for a much shorter period of time. In early November, at a meeting of the coordinating committee for Catholic aid agencies in Jerusalem, Father Humam Khzouz, the general administrator for the Latin Patriarchate, stated that church leaders are now hampered in running their parishes and programs because they are constrained in making personnel moves on account of the visa application difficulties.

Giving a tour of the House of Grace — which has at its core a medieval stone church that had been abandoned before the Shahade family transformed it into the peaceful sanctuary it is today — Mr. Shahade admitted he sometimes feels “conflicted” about his life as an Arab Christian Israeli.

“I have sympathy for the Palestinians, but I also feel somewhere inside that I’m an Israeli. I was born in the state of Israel. I’m here because I have a mission. I’m here because of my connection to the Bible.

“Conflicts,” continued Mr. Shahade, “bring us nowhere. It just disrupts our lives and creates bad will.”

Israel’s war in 2006 with Hezbollah, for instance, terrorized residents of all creeds in the Galilee, which borders Lebanon in the north. Hezbollah rockets repeatedly struck communities in northern Israel, hitting communities as far south as Haifa. Unlike predominantly Jewish areas, many Arab villages in the Galilee lack bomb shelters, aggravating their sense of fear. In addition, some feared for the lives of their kin who live in southern Lebanon, where most of the fighting took place.

As with all Israelis regardless of ethnicity or religious faith, Arab Christians worry about the rise of radical Islam.

Tension undeniably marks relations among the various Israeli Arab religious communities. In the historically Christian city of Nazareth, some residents make it a point to remind visitors that Muslims are now the majority. On the road to the Basilica of the Annunciation — a site that attracts tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year — one sheikh has erected a large billboard that reads: “And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers. — The Holy Koran.”

On a few occasions, tensions have erupted between Arab Christians and Druze. In 2005, in the mixed Christian-Druze village of Maghar, which lies ten miles from the Sea of Galilee, Druze youths attacked Christian residents and their property for two straight days. A false rumor that a Christian had posted obscene photographs of Druze women on the Internet reportedly incited the violence.

“The Druze attacked us four times,” said the pastor of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church of St. George, Father Maher Abood, according to AsiaNews.

Last June, a similar incident occurred in the mixed Arab village of Shfaram. Violence broke out after Druze youths accused Christians of posting a YouTube clip that insulted a Druze cleric. Several young men were stabbed in the fighting, and Christian-owned homes and other property were severely damaged or destroyed.

“People from outside the village incited people [inside the village] and committed a ‘pogrom,’” said a middle-aged Catholic resident and businessman.

“The physical damage to property and to people has passed, but the spiritual pain remains. It hurt the soul and the soul hasn’t healed,” continued the man, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

“The violence was a shock,” he said quietly. “I’ve known my neighbors all my life and they have known me all my life. Our problems were small, like problems in any other place anywhere in the world.”

Since the incident, the village’s religious leaders have made great efforts to calm tensions. Still, Christian residents remain uneasy.

“A mosque stands right opposite the Catholic church up the street, so we see each other every day,” the businessman said about the relationship between the village’s Christians and Muslims.

“This is our home and we aren’t budging.”

But Amr, another Catholic resident and businessman, says he and his friends talk a great deal about leaving.

“It’s not because of what’s been happening in Shfaram, though I no longer feel completely safe here,” he said. For reasons of personal safety, the young father of two declined to give his last name.

“It’s because we feel we have no future here as Arabs. Once the guy at a discothéque knows you’re an Arab, he won’t let you in. The security check at the airport is just as humiliating. I’ve traveled with Jewish colleagues and they’re not scrutinized the same way.”

While Israel’s Arab Christians face many challenges, they recognize what they have. “When you are a minority, there are always positives and negatives,” said Father Louis Hazboun, pastor of the Latin Catholic parish in Jaffa-Nazareth and principal of the parish school.

It is difficult to imagine Father Hazboun, whose warmth touches everyone he meets, ever seeing the glass half empty.

Jesus said, ‘Don’t be afraid, my small flock. I will be with you, to be a light to the world, the salt of the earth.’ We must live Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation.

“There are different definitions of peace,” he continued. “What I do know is that no one can take our inner peace from us. When you are at peace from within, others are irrelevant. We are open to everyone. We are the peacemakers.”

Eighteen-year-old Maronite Bashir Nahra agrees. The young Haifa resident, who hopes to study engineering at Israel’s Technion Institute of Technology in the autumn, said he calls on his faith when dealing with proponents of extremism. From the newly renovated room used by his youth group at St. Louis Maronite Church, Mr. Nahra said he has studied with “a lot of Arab students who said that the Jews should be pushed into the sea. And I’ve met Jews who basically say the same about the Arabs.”

Alternating between perfect Hebrew and excellent English, Mr. Nahra says he always tries to convince others that “killing is not the solution to any problem. Being Christian, you must look at everything from the human point of view. The Palestinians suffer a lot, but Israel also needs to defend its people.

“I am not a patriotic Israeli, but I believe in serving the country I live in,” added the young man, who considered serving in the Israeli army before his family forbade him.

“I look at every issue from a Christian perspective. It’s about loving everyone around you. It’s about finding peace.”

Jerusalem-based Michele Chabin writes for USA TODAY, the Jewish Journal and ONE.

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