Telling the Story of Christians in Israel

Editors’ note: Journalist Michele Chabin in Jerusalem shares in the audio report below how her assignment for the June 2023 issue of ONE magazine was touch and go at first but worked out in the end. Listen to her audio report — a full transcript follows — then read her feature article “Living a Christian Life in the Land of Jesus.”

Some stories are easier to report than others.

There were times when I doubted this article about Christians in Israel would materialize due to an escalation in violence among Palestinians and Israelis in the months leading up to my assignment. Thank God the situation improved and I was able to start my assignment on time. I’m so glad it did because this is a story I wanted to tell.

Israel’s Christians who comprise just 2 percent of the population live largely under the radar. The world often forgets that there is an ancient and vibrant Christian community in modern-day Israel, the only country in the Middle East where the Christian community is actually growing, albeit slowly.

The Christian population grew by 2 percent in 2021, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. A common misconception is that Christians in Israel face the same challenges as in the rest of the Middle East. In reality, Christians in Israel have freedom of worship, the freedom to build churches and other religious institutions, and to gather as a faith community.

As Joseph Shahada, a Greek Orthodox Church elder in the Galilee Village of Kafr Yasif shared with me.

They also have access to the country’s safety net of social services, including health care noted Joseph Hazboun, CNEWA-Pontifical Missions regional director in Jerusalem. They benefit from the national social security system, unemployment benefits and old age pension.

Education is a core value within Israeli Christian society. Students who graduate from Christian schools consistently score highest on the state’s matriculation exams. In 2022, an impressive 84 percent of Christian 12th-grade students were eligible for a matriculation certificate. That’s a higher percentage than the rest of the population.

More than half of all Israeli Christians get a higher education, and many earn advanced degrees or work in highly regarded professions as doctors, nurses or pharmacists. The rate of students studying in the field of medicine is higher among Christian Arab students than that of all other sectors.

The majority of Christians live in Northern Israel, many in the villages of their ancestors, where there is an unbreakable sense of community. But this doesn’t mean Christians don’t face discrimination in Israel. They do. It is reflected in the many acts of vandalism, harassment and spitting, carried out by extremist ultra-Orthodox Jews against Christian institutions and clergy, as well as in government policy.

In Israel’s 2020 budget, for example, only 7 percent of the Ministry of Religion’s budget was allocated to non-Jews in Israel. This makes it much more difficult for Christians, Muslims and other non-Jews to maintain their houses of worship and to provide religious services. As well, since the majority of Israeli Christians speak Arabic and live alongside Muslim Arabs and Druze, the Israeli government views them first and foremost as Arabs. That’s a problem because Arab municipalities receive smaller budgets and fewer building permits than Jewish-majority municipalities. Christian leaders expect conditions for their community to worsen under the new government, whose recently approved national budget, gives strong priority to West Bank settlements and ultra-Orthodox Jews at the expense of other populations.

Even so, most Israeli Christians are determined to stay and make Israel a better place to live for people of all faiths actively integrating into Israeli society while maintaining their unique Christian heritage and faith.

Michele Chabin is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

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