Hidden Heritage: Aramean Christians Fighting for Israel
JERUSALEM, Israel -- Christians across the Middle East are fleeing Muslim murder and persecution. But one country provides a safe haven and freedom for Christians and that's Israel.
For generations, indigenous Arabic-speaking Christians have been considered a tiny minority within the larger Muslim Arab minority in Israel and Muslim majority in the Middle East.
But now many of them are breaking away from that identity, fighting in the Israeli Defense Forces for the Jewish state and reclaiming a hidden heritage.
Greek Orthodox priest Father Gabriel Nadaf is leading the way. He lives and ministers in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth.
An Arimean Heritage
Two-thousand years ago, Nazareth was the boyhood home of Jesus. Today it's the largest Christian city in Israel.
But Nadaf, who founded the Christian Israeli Forum, is so controversial that the Greek Orthodox Church threatened to defrock him and Israeli police must protect him with a personal alarm that he can wear on his wrist like a watch round the clock. But he is not deterred.
"Despite all the threats and the incitement against me, I will not turn back from my way," Nadaf told CBN's Scott Ross.
Nadaf's son was violently attacked in December 2013 before he joined the IDF. He joined anyway.
"I am continuing with my faith and my way, the way of integration. Or I'll die or there will be more of this way. If I won't die, I'll continue to the end," Nadaf said.
Nadaf's offense: saying he's not an Arab, reclaiming his Aramean heritage and encouraging young Christians to integrate into Israeli society, especially by serving in the IDF.
"We want to protect the state that's protecting us," Nadaf said.
Most Christians in the Middle East come from a Catholic or a number of Orthodox traditions. Most of them speak Arabic -- the language of their countries -- but many say that doesn't make them Arabs.
No Such Thing as 'Christian Arab'
Until recently, Israel and the rest of the world considered Nadaf and most of the 160,000 Christians in Israel as Arab Israelis, lumping them together with the large Muslim minority.
But Nadaf and others like Shadi Khaloul say they're not Arabs even though they speak Arabic. They say they're Aramean.
"I was raised as a Christian in a Christian family who believed in Christ, who went to church every Sunday, and they listened to an Aramaic language in our church, in our mass," Khaloul, chairman for the Aramaic Christian Society in Israel, said. "That's our church language actually."
Many believe Jesus spoke Aramaic when he was on the earth. Khaloul told Ross the term "Christian Arab" is a "fake terminology" invented in the last century.
"It was created only around 100 years ago by pan-Arabism theology and this is a big mistake," he said.
"We are [an] Aramaic population who inhabited this area at the time of Muslim conquerors in the 7th century. We preserved our national identity and religious identity for 1,400 [years] and today because we are forced to speak Arabic," he said.
Ross asked if that made them Arabs and wondered if someone moved to the Middle East and spoke the Arabic language, if he would suddenly start calling himself an Arab.
"I can't accept myself being [called] an Arab, not because I hate or I don't like Arabs. I have nothing [against] Arabs. I am not [an] Arab," he said emphatically.
An Official Minority
Recently, Israel became the first Middle Eastern country to recognize Aramean Christians as an official minority. And in October Khaloul's 2-year-old son Ya'akov became the first person in modern history to be registered as Aramean in Israel's population registry.
Khaloul, an IDF reservist, was also ahead of the curve when it came to enlisting in the army.
"I joined the IDF in 1993, and at that time it was unusual," he explained.
But he did it, he said, first and foremost because he is a Christian.
"As a Christian, I believe that Israel is my country. I live here," he said. "This is the country that protects me as a Christian. I live here in freedom."
"If I compare myself to other Christians in the Middle East and the way they live -- I have freedom of speech; I have freedom of movement. I have freedom in anything I want," he continued. "If I have full abilities and requirements I can go anywhere I want, even to any position I want."
Khaloul said the Israelis treated him as one of the group.
"In the army, we're all equal. There is no difference between Jewish or Aramaic Christian -- as am I -- or even Arab, which is Muslim," he said.
But the problem came with the way the Arabs treated him.
"I faced a lot of Arab[s] cursing us, telling us that you are people that betrayed the Arabs and Palestinians, and they don't accept you as a national identity that can have freedom of your choice," he said. "They want you to be an Arab and they force you to be an Arab against your will."
Nearly all Jewish Israelis are drafted into the IDF after high school. Khaloul said it's also important for young Christians to join because it helps them to be part of the country.
"The IDF in Israel is considered to be a school actually, a school for the Israeli society, for entrance to the Israeli society," he said. "You will eat with them [Jewish soldiers], learn with them, talk with them. They will know about your side of identity and they will know about you."
"You will have a better chance to integrate into the Israeli society -- not because you did military service, but because of better understanding the Israeli Jewish society, which is the majority of this country -- 80 percent [of the population]," he added.
The trend is catching on. In one year, despite condemnation from Arab leaders, Christian enlistment increased from an average of 35 per year to 150 and more than 420--mostly women--signed up for National Civil Service.
Integrating into Israel
But there is still resistance from many Christians when it comes to integrating into Israel. Nadaf said there's a spiritual dimension. Since the founding of the State of Israel no one told Christians that Christianity came out of Judaism, he said. And that's what he is trying to teach them now.
"The Christians that now are against integration into Israeli society, to my dismay, they're not going in the way of Christianity," Nadaf said. "They don't understand that Christianity really comes from Judaism -- that the roots of Christianity are also from this land."
"And if the Jews will leave the land of Israel, there also won't be Christians here," he added.
Nadaf said he would like Christians around the world to pray for their Christian brothers here that the integration process would succeed.
"If we [achieve] this integration there will be true love and we will live in peace with our neighbors here in the State of Israel," he said. "Together with the Jews, we will protect the Land of Israel."