Last weekend, Father Gabriel Nadaf (39), a Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth, challenged a boycott against him and attempted to enter the Church there to recite a prayer and light a candle. He was accompanied by Israeli Border Police officers and supporters, who came to ensure his safe passage into the church.
Nadaf was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church Council after he expressed his belief that Christian youth in Israel should fully integrate into Israeli society, serving in the IDF or in the National Service. Since then, he and others, like Father André Alamiya, have been the target of virulent attacks from the opponents to this idea. For example, Father Alamiya's tires were slashed last weekend, and a rag saturated with blood was placed at his doorstep in Nazareth.
Father Nadaf believes Israel serves as an anchor for its Christian minority and cares for its security, and from this he derives his commitment towards Israel. Since his excommunication from the Council, which is headed by Dr. Azmi Hakim, a member of the Israeli Communist party, he has been forced to move around with bodyguards.
According to Nadaf, a coalition of Arab nationalists, Islamists and Arab communists have convened against him and his followers, and are currently waging an aggressive campaign in local and international media, as well as in social media and on YouTube. In one YouTube clip, Nadaf is dubbed "a Zionist agent, a traitor, insane, who pursues money and tries to enlist the youth in the army of occupation".
A "Black List" has been compiled of priests, Christian IDF officers and members of the security establishment who support Nadaf's ideas. Pictures of youth who participated in a recent IDF event made it to the local Arab press, generating an ugly wave of harassment at schools, in social media and in the streets. Parents say that teachers have discussed in class why "it is a catastrophe to join the IDF". Soldiers have asked their commanders to go on leave wearing their civilian clothes to avoid possible assault when they go home. Nadaf's people talk of an imminent explosion if the Israeli government fails to take action against the incitement. One of the Christian IDF officers, a resident of Nazareth, tells of a safer sense on the front lines than at home.
Nadaf, a father of two, previously served as a priest in Acre and Haifa, as a spokesman for the Patriarchate and as a member of the Greek-Orthodox religious court. A picture of President Shimon Peres hangs at the entrance to his home, beside icons of Jesus and Mary. He believes the Christian community's future is with the State of Israel, talks of a sense of security he feels only in Israel, and feels that his community should serve the country like every other citizen. He believes an historical bond between the Jewish and Christian communities in Israel is possible, but warns that the Israeli Government must act to restrain the inciters and protect Christians; otherwise this chance may be lost. He has expressed fear for his life and his family's lives and thinks most Christians in Israel feel Israel is their country. They want to receive, they want to give. The street is silent when it comes to showing support for him, he says, but he believes the majority of his community supports his notions.
A forum of Christian servicemen and members of the security establishment support and protect Nadaf. They also accompany youngsters from the Christian community on their way to enlisting in the IDF. Families of these youngsters are constantly harassed and have been forced to install security cameras in their homes. Bishara Shlayan (57), spokesman for the forum, told Tazpit News Agency that the process of Christians leaving Nazareth has been taking place for some years, but has intensified lately. "Many have even left the country. We feel we are being forced out of the city."
Shlayan, a merchant marine captain, explained why the forum is necessary. "I believe everyone is entitled to an opinion, but Israel's security should not be on the table. I believe everyone should do their part, either serve in the IDF or in the National Service. On the other hand, we are witness to our youth not receiving the proper support they need in the IDF. We established the forum to provide support to the enlisting youth and to ensure they are well treated and serve a meaningful service. We have decided not to be silent anymore. We have decided to provide an address for any issues related to military service." He stresses that the forum is non-political.
He talks of a sense of anxiety among the Christian community in Israel, as a result of the Christians' gloomy fate in the rest of the Middle East. "Israel has a stable regime and protects us, and we in turn are loyal citizens, but we do live with a sense of insecurity, which brings us to feel like the rest of the Christian in the region." In conclusion, he speaks warmly of what he defines as his country. "Israel is really the best country in the world. We live in Israel, and I feel a part of the state and the Jewish People. Israel belongs to the Jews, and we are part of it. We want to continue to live here forever."
Nadaf and his followers have found only a few supporters among Israeli society. 'Im Tirzu', an Israeli Zionist student body, has joined in showing support for the pro-Israel Christians. They recently wrote to MK Rony Bar-On, chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, demanding he ensure the safety of the community and stop the provocateurs.
It is significant to note that according to all latest reports, Christianity has come close to extinction in the Middle East. After the so-called 'Arab Spring' and the rise of Islamism in its wake, most Christian minorities in the Middle East are persecuted and forced to leave. It is estimated that 200 million Christians, or 10 per cent of Christians worldwide, are socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs. Israel is basically the last safe haven in the Middle East where Christians can practice their religion freely.
Aryeh Savir writes for the Tazpit news service, from where this article is adapted.