After a long struggle, Israel has recognized the Aramean Christians as a separate community, paving the way for their integration into the state.
It's official: Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar instructed the Population Administration to recognize the Aramean-Christian community as a national separate from the Israeli Arab one • "I have no words. This is an historic move which remedies an injustice done to the Christian community," Father Gavriel Nadaf told 'Mida' • Maj. (Res.) Shadi Halul, spokesman for the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum: "We will live alongside the Jews to protect our right to live as nations who were here before the Arab conquest. A new era has begun in the history of the State of Israel"
Members of the Christian community in Israel have been working for a long time to achieve official recognition as a community separate from the Arab-Muslim minority. Today (16.9), all that hard work paid off: in an unprecedented move, Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar confirmed the Aramean-Christian community as a separate nation in the Population registry.
Talking to 'Mida', Father Gavriel Nadaf, spiritual leader of the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum, was overwhelmed with excitement: "I have no words. This is an important an historic move which remedies the injustice done to the Christian community in the State of Israel. We are a community with a history, heritage and national identification with the Aramean people that goes back 2,000 years, and I am happy that the happy tidings are coming from the State of Israel to all members of the Cristian community in Israel and to the whole world. I would like to take this opportunity to make an impassioned appeal to go to the Interior Ministry and change their national identification from Arab-Christian to Aramean-Christian, join our family and be part of our new future, for the glory of the State of Israel."
Sa'ar's decision came after in-depth investigation and consultation with academics from Israel and abroad. Father Nadaf, who pushed for the move and followed it closely, is full of thanks for the people involved and first and foremost Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is an enthusiastic supporter of integrating Christians into Israel. "I appeal to all members of the Christian community and say that today is a very happy day for the Christian community. From today, I officially call myself an Aramean Christian, an Israeli citizen, one who is proud of his country and wishes to live in it as a loyal citizen, who believes in equality of rights and responsibilities."
Senior members of the community arrived at Nadaf's home to congratulate him, and the phones won't stop ringing. "I am very optimistic and believe that very shortly the Interior Ministry will be surprised at the number of Christians who will come and return to their roots," Father Nadaf said.
The Christian minority in Israel numbers some 130,000 people. It's hard to know just how many of them support this move, "Most are sitting on the fence. They aren't supporting it out loud and are waiting see other authorities take steps in this field," said Amit Barak, the coordinator for government contacts at the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum. "And still, there are many signs that attest to very broad silent approval. The Christians see what is going on around them and where they are living."
Barak explains that formal recognition has many consequences. "First and foremost, it will advance the removal of the structural discrimination against the Aramean-Christian community in Israel. For instance, until now, they were considered part of the Muslim minority. As a result, they learned and were tested on Muslim history in their schools. Formal recognition will enable us to advance its recognition as an educationally distinct group which will learn Christian history and heritage, much like the Circassian and Druze communities."
Recognition also opens many doors for Christians to official positions in the State of Israel. "This is an important step in a broad legislative campaign we are promoting to grant the Christians unique status," Barak said. "MK Yariv Levin has already passed legislation stating that there should be a Christian representative at the Knesset committee for equal work opportunities. Now we have the legal basis to push similar moves."
Refusing to Yield
The process of recognition of the Christians as a separate community began in 2007-8 when Major (res.) Shadi Halul, founder of the 'Aramean-Christian Association in Israel' and spokesman for the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum, and Maj. Ihab Shelian began promoting the idea of inserting the Aramaic language into their schools. "Since then, there have been a lot of difficulties," he told 'Mida', "we've had quite a few ups and downs. Many Arabs opposed the move and we endured curses, incitement, threats and persecution from them. Even before the 'Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum' was founded, they would approach [Arab] MKs and try to thwart our efforts."
Even today, he says, two cars arrived in front of Father Nadaf's house to harass him. Nadaf had to call the police to get them away. "In the end we continued teaching Aramaic in the schools with the approval of then-Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar. During that time, we sent repeated letters and requests via our attorney Yael Katz-Nussbaum to then-Interior Minister Elli Yishai, but to no avail."
'Mida' has been following the Aramean-Christian community's struggle for a long time, and we have publicized many cases of verbal and physical harassment by Arab groups who oppose the move to integrate Christians into Israeli society. But what stands out is that in addition to the street-level attacks, there is also strong opposition to the move from Israeli MKs, especially representatives of the Balad and Meretz parties. Just last month, 'Mida' reported on the tremendous efforts made by MK Basel Ghattas (Balad) to attack the 'Israel Christians Recruitment Forum'. He even called Father Nadaf a "traitor, a scumbag and a GSS agent."
In spite of it all, the Forum refuses to buckle under the pressure. Halul is satisfied that their efforts and persistence have borne fruit: "What began as the 'Aramean Association' in Israel in 2008 with the submission of parliamentary questions via MK Yariv Levin to the government has ended with the historic decision by Minister Gideon Sa'ar; a decision which allows the Aramean-Christian nation to be a separate community which takes its affairs into its own hands and arrives at independent decisions. Now we will no longer be dependent on the Arabs – instead we will live alongside the Jews to protect our right to live as nations who were here before the Arab conquest. A new era has begun in the history of the State of Israel, and this is the New Middle East that should be."
English translation by Avi Woolf.