ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Living a Christian Life in the Land of Jesus

Stefan Amseis, a resident of Ramle, a religiously diverse city in central Israel, always wears a cross around his neck.

These days, however, the 30-year-old, who identifies as an Arab Christian citizen of Israel, is being extra careful due to the deteriorating security situation following reports of a recent uptick in Jewish extremists spitting at Christians and vandalizing Christian property.

“When I’m in Jerusalem I’m concerned that nationalistic or ultra-Orthodox Jews will spit at me if they know I’m Christian,” says Mr. Amseis, an editor of the Arabic edition of The Holy Land Review (As-Salam Wal-Kheir), the magazine of the Franciscans of the Holy Land.

Small groups of fanatical Jews have been harassing Christians for years, but the number of incidents shot up this winter, soon after Israel’s new government took office on 29 December.

“We have seen bolder attacks in broad daylight on some church properties,” says Joseph Hazboun, CNEWA-Pontifical Mission’s regional director for Palestine and Israel. Mr. Hazboun has a front-row view of the situation from his office in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

He enumerates some of the incidents, including the vandalism of the cemetery of the Anglican church on the Mount of Olives and the February attack on the Church of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa, where an Orthodox Jewish American tourist destroyed a towering statue of Jesus. The attacker screamed, “No idols in the holy city of Jerusalem!” as he hit the statue’s face with a hammer.

Nuns and priests are spat upon and cursed out frequently as they walk through the narrow, winding streets of the Old City, which is also home to a group of young Jewish extremists.  

Bishop Rafic Nahra in Nazareth, patriarchal vicar for Israel and auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, says the police are not taking the actions of extremists seriously. There have been almost no arrests.

“We know that the government doesn’t support the attacks, but its response has been weak. If synagogues were being attacked, the response would be stronger,” he asserts.

Rabbi David Rosen, the Jerusalem-based director of international interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, says the government is making some efforts, but not enough.

“More security is being provided and more cameras have been installed in vulnerable areas, but the real problem is that the police don’t have legal grounds to act against some of the instigators,” he says. “Spitting isn’t a hate crime under Israeli law. What’s needed is legislation to show these actions aren’t being taken lightly.”

Bishop Nahra attributes at least some of the government’s inaction to Israel’s inner turmoil.

“There are deep divisions within Jewish society, and our ‘small’ problems seem like nothing to them,” the bishop says. “But this feels like discrimination.”

Since March, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest the new government’s plans to alter the country’s court system and expand Orthodox Jewish authority in the public sphere.

Waving Israeli flags and calling for democracy, the protesters have organized general strikes and weekly demonstrations that have blocked major highways. They say the proposed laws are both undemocratic and theocratic, claiming Israel was founded as a secular country and as a homeland for Jews of all stripes.

Mira Laham and her son, Taim, in the maternity ward of St. Vincent de Paul French Hospital in Nazareth. (photo: Ilene Perlman)

What is described as far-right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties within the prime minister’s coalition support the expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories, higher budgets for ultra-Orthodox institutions, and the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from mandatory military service.

Just before the start of Passover, the ultra-Orthodox parties, whose members comprise nearly half of the 64-seat governing coalition, pushed through a law that allows hospitals to ban non-Passover foods, such as bread, during the holiday.

The law impacts not only secular Jews, but the country’s religious minorities.

“The law shows a lack of consideration for non-Jewish citizens of Israel, and goes against the democratic values of the state,” says Mr. Hazboun. “It’s no different than a Muslim faction that would want to impose the wearing of the hijab or to prohibit alcohol.”

Of greater concern is the coalition’s efforts to weaken the authority of the Supreme Court, whose rulings over the past two decades have tended to be moderate, especially regarding the rights of women, non-Orthodox Jews and minorities.

If the so-called “judicial overhaul” bill passes without significant modifications, it would take only 61 lawmakers in the 120-seat Parliament to overturn many Supreme Court rulings. Another bill would give parliamentarians a much larger say in who can serve as a judge.

Neri Zilber, an Israel-based policy adviser at the Israel Policy Forum, describes the situation as “the most severe constitutional crisis” in Israel’s 75-year history.

“The bills would usher in majoritarian rule: The majority in Parliament and the government would be able to decide to pass any law or make any decision they so choose.”

A sweeping judicial overhaul could result in no real protections for things like minority rights, Mr. Zilber warns. In theory, it could effectively ban all Arab parties running in elections on the grounds that these parties do not recognize Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Sister Maha Sansour visits with staff and patients in the geriatric department of St. Vincent de Paul French Hospital in Nazareth during an art activity for Easter and Ramadan. (photo: Ilene Perlman)

“We could have a situation where Arab citizens, who are 21 percent of the population, have no political representation,” he adds.

Of the 182,000 Christian citizens of Israel, about 138,000 are Arab, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. Many but not all identify as Palestinian. Christians comprise roughly 2 percent of Israel’s population of 9.7 million, while Muslims make up 18 percent.

Arab parties typically run in national elections and sit in the opposition in the Knesset. However, Ra’am, an Islamic party, made history in 2021, when it joined the then-moderate governing coalition.

Despite the deepening rifts in Israeli society, Mr. Zilber sees one silver lining: All aspects of Israeli society, including its moderates and leftists, have become much more proactive in setting a course for the country’s future. According to opinion polls conducted this spring, if elections were held soon, the current prime minister and his party would be unable to form a government.

“This could be a stepping stone to vote in a more reasonable government,” says Mr. Zilber.

Arab citizens, including Christians, worry that the priorities of the present government will result in even less support for the already underserved Arab and non-Jewish sectors.

“We fear that the unprecedented budget allocation ($9.7 billion) passed by the previous government to bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews will be frozen and used to fund settlements and the National Guard,” said Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Arab equality in Israel.

While the Arab sector has many concerns, government funding and initiatives to fight organized crime and violence within Arab towns and cities is at the top of the list, says Mr. Abu Rass.

In 2022, 112 Arab citizens and four non-citizens died due to criminal activity within the Arab community perpetrated by its own members. Of these, 87 percent were killed by gunfire. Five victims lost their lives in circumstances related to policing, according to the Abraham Initiatives.

“The security minister should be ensuring public safety for all Israeli citizens, but he is doing nothing to bring safety to the Arab community,” says Mr. Abu Rass.

Other major concerns are aging infrastructure and not enough land to accommodate natural growth within Arab municipalities.

The village of Kafr Yasif in Galilee is a case in point. The scenic, hilly village, dotted with lovely stone houses and beautiful churches, is home to Christians, Muslims and Druze. The Christian community, which comprises almost 60 percent of the population, has award-winning schools and thriving youth groups, but there is not enough housing to accommodate the residents’ grown children who want to reside there.

This housing shortage — which affects all Israelis but is especially acute in Arab municipalities — has motivated many young people to move to the nearby cities of Akko and Haifa, and even abroad after graduating from university.

In the quiet moments before leading a Holy Thursday liturgy in the recently built church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, the Greek Orthodox pastor, the Reverend Atallah Makhouli, strikes a serious note.

Father Atallah Makhouli serves the Greek Orthodox faithful in Kafr Yasif. (photo: Ilene Perlman)

“We Christians have been here for generations upon generations. We hope to be here for many, many more. But the future of our children depends on peace,” says Father Makhouli.

He notes that Palestinian militants had fired more than 30 rockets into Galilee on 6 April, and violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem had soared in recent weeks. Yet even peace will not prevent young people from leaving if they cannot maintain a good quality of life and do not have the ability to build homes, he adds.

“The government doesn’t give us the land to expand the village. It’s an old problem.”

Due to their small numbers, Christians in Israel also face the threat of assimilation, says Josef Shahada, a leader in the Greek Orthodox community and an educator in Kafr Yasif.

“We live between Jews and Arabs, a minority in Israel, but also within Arab society,” which can make it difficult to maintain a unique identity, he adds. This is especially true when Christian students attend Israeli universities and find jobs that further mainstream them into Jewish or Muslim Israeli society.

Back in Nazareth, Bishop Nahra says the fact that Christians in Israel are highly educated, westernized and for the most part financially secure is both a blessing and a challenge.

Parishioners attend a Holy Thursday liturgy at the Greek Orthodox Nativity of the Virgin Mary Church in Kafr Yasif, Israel, on 13 April. (photo: Ilene Perlman)

To help children and their families feel more connected to Jesus and the church, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem has identified several areas in need of improvement.

One priority is to enhance the faith formation of the schools’ catechism teachers, so they can teach the Christian faith with enthusiasm and joy. A second priority is to encourage more family participation in church services and activities.

“Israel is a very secular and very expensive society, so people have to work very hard,” he says. “There’s little time to build family life. Parents often don’t go to Mass, so the children don’t have a liturgical life.”

The Catholic churches are also collaborating to provide opportunities for the country’s Catholic young adults — whether they be Roman Catholic or Eastern Catholic — to meet, socialize and hopefully marry.

As frustrated as he is by the Israeli government’s longstanding funding roadblocks to Christian institutions, Father Abdel Masih Fahim, a Franciscan and the coordinator of Christian schools in Israel, is gratified that Christian schools will soon have their very first history of Christianity textbook.

In terms of curriculum, Israel has never distinguished between Christian and Muslim Arabs. For decades, the education ministry has required all schools in the Arab sector to teach history and other subjects from an Islamic perspective, including in Christian schools.

Until now, Father Fahim points out, Christian schools “have been required to teach from Islamic history books that ignore 600 years of Christian history, from the birth of Jesus until the advent of Islam in the seventh century. We have courses in the Arabic language that take texts from the Quran. So, we asked [the education ministry], why not draw from texts from Christianity, the Gospel or the Bible?”

This long-yearned-for textbook is in its final stages, he says. 

For 125 years, the St. Vincent de Paul French Hospital in Nazareth has cared for patients of all faiths, just as its founder, Mother Leonie Sion of the Daughters of Charity, had envisioned.

Today, the 140-bed hospital operates as a general public health facility under the regulations of the ministry of health. Yet, much like the country’s Christian schools, it receives only a fraction of the funding state hospitals receive. The National Insurance Institute pays for the care of individual patients, but not for hospital renovations or new medical equipment.

The same is true of other semi-private hospitals, such as the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, but these medical facilities can make up the shortfall with funding from private donors, including the Jewish diaspora.

The geriatric department of the St. Vincent de Paul French Hospital has 26 fragile inpatients. On a warm spring day, a handful of them are working on therapeutic art projects related to Easter and Ramadan in the ward’s cramped but cheery day room.

Looking in on the activities, Sister Maha Sansour, the head nurse, warmly greets every patient and staffer. But her smile turns wistful when she steps back into the corridor. She wishes the hospital could update the space. 

“Given financial resources, we could treat more patients. We could renovate a bit, and add sinks to every room,” says Sister Maha, one of three Daughters of Charity who work at the hospital.

Even with the shortfall, the hospital has managed to create a sparkling maternity wing that enables mothers and their newborns to stay in the same room.

Mira Laham watches her two-day-old son, Taim, asleep in his bassinet. She traveled from Haifa, where she lives, to Nazareth, her hometown, to give birth at the hospital.

“My husband is a doctor at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, but I wanted to be in the French Hospital because I love the atmosphere and the care,” she says. “Also, I was born here and wanted my child to be born here. It’s a part of our family history.”

The ethos of the hospital reflects Sister Leonie’s vision to create a Christian hospital for all who need it. Crosses adorn the walls and, during Easter week, stuffed bunnies and colorful chocolate eggs decorate every ward. A chapel is at the center of the facility.

The minute she felt strong enough, Mrs. Laham asked the sisters to accompany her and 

Taim to the chapel to offer a prayer of gratitude and to bless the baby.

Like Mrs. Laham, Stefan Amseis feels a visceral connection to Christian history and to the land Jesus called home. Like many of his peers, he feels an obligation to strengthen his church and community.

“Christians are 2 percent of the population, and if everyone leaves, how can we improve the situation here? We feel a responsibility. If we are gone, who will care for our churches?” he says.

“We want to have children here and to put them on the path to live a Christian life. On this land.”

Read this article in our digital print format here.

The CNEWA Connection

While Christians are a minority within a minority in Israel, the church’s social service programs are numerous. And they care for Christians, Jews and Muslims — all segments of society. One such initiative, the St. Vincent de Paul French Hospital in Nazareth, provides health care to patients regardless of their faith. CNEWA- Pontifical Mission funds have gone toward rehabilitation projects, operational expenses, play areas for children with special needs and upgraded services.

To support this crucial work, call 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada)

or visit

Michele Chabin is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

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