In January 2012, the army’s head of military intelligence delivered an address about the Arab Spring – the power of the masses, the prices of freedom. There was ample talk about economics and Facebook and the rise of terror in the areas no longer under government control. Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, though, also predicted that, regionally speaking, nationalism would wane as religion waxed.

His gaze, at the time, was fixed on Syria and Iraq – both broken countries. But the prediction, to a certain extent, has proven true at home, too, where an Arabic-speaking Christian clergyman, Father Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest, has done the unthinkable: He has issued a call for Christian Arab citizens of Israel to reassess their Arab identity and to consider themselves indigenous Christians, of Greek and Aramaic origin, inextricably linked to the Jewish people and the Old Testament, and to fortify that bond by serving in the Israeli army.

In late April, amid widespread condemnation from Israel’s Arab minority, the IDF announced that, pursuant to Naddaf’s request, it would begin inviting Christian Arabs to draft boards in the Galilee in order to provide them with information about the army. Col. Gil Ben-Sharon, the commander of the IDF’s recruitment and draft unit, Meitav, said that “we won’t call them like all young people, mandatorily,” but added that the Christian Arab citizens of Israel “see themselves like all other citizens of Israel and want to do the same as them.”

Since the founding of the state, Israel’s Christian Arab citizens – today roughly 10 percent of Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens – have not been called to army service. Druze communities, abiding by a pact made with the fledgling state, send their sons to serve. Most willingly succumb to the draft. Bedouin Muslim Arabs, some 400 per year, Ben-Sharon said, volunteer to serve in the IDF. But the Christians, a minority within a minority, have excelled scholastically and professionally in Israel while, either out of ideological conviction or time-tested prudence, steadfastly maintaining their Arab nationalism and Palestinian identity over what might be considered shared Judeo-Christian theological roots.

“Why do the Druze serve? Why do the Bedouin serve? But not the Christians?” Naddaf asked during a Times of Israel interview. “Because they are scared.” And that, he suggested, had to change. “It is time to say in a loud and clear voice: enough.”

Christian Arab Border Policemen and soldiers flank deputy minister MK Ofir Akunis (Photo credit: courtesy: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Christian Arab Border Policemen and soldiers flank deputy minister MK Ofir Akunis (Photo credit: courtesy IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Naddaf’s call and the army’s subsequent response have created a maelstrom. MK Hanin Zoabi (Balad), a Muslim former mayoral candidate in Naddaf’s hometown of Nazareth who rejects all national service for Israel’s Arab citizens, penned him a letter shortly after his call. “What you are doing is endangering the Christian youth, when you separate him from his people and change him into an enemy of his people and assist his true enemies,” she wrote, according to a translation of the letter made available by Im Tirzu. “The Arab Christians are not a neutral bridge,” she added, “…they are part of the weave of our Arab Palestinian people… Our Palestinian people are the ones under attack and what harms one sect harms us all.”

Her colleague MK Bassel Ghattas, an Arab of Christian heritage, reportedly vowed [Hebrew], in an interview with the Arabic-language Al-Arab website, to “chase down Father Naddaf and see to it that he is stripped of his priestly garments.”

A Facebook posting that appears to put a price on the heads of Naddaf and Lt. (res) Shadi Khaloul, the spokesman of the Forum for Drafting the Christian Community (photo credit: Facebook via Im Tirzu)

A Facebook posting that appears to put a price on the heads of Naddaf and Lt. (res) Shadi Khaloul, the spokesman of the Forum for Drafting the Christian Community (photo credit: Facebook via Im Tirzu)

A Christian Arab woman from the Galilee town of Rameh launched a Facebook page earlier this month titled “Fire Naddaf From the Greek Orthodox Church.” She told The Times of Israel that while there have been some violent threats on the page, which she has edited out, most of the 6,300 people who have liked the page simply find Naddaf’s message wrong-headed and dangerous. “We live within a conflict, as a second-rate minority, within a nation that is occupying our nation,” she said. “I can understand integrating into Israeli society, but not through the army.” To do so, she added, would constitute “very dangerous steps” that would sow “hatred between neighbors.”

The Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem – an opaque institution with considerable influence in Israel on account of its vast land holdings, including the land on which the Prime Minister’s Residence rests – has remained on the fence. Some of the church’s ambivalence is self-evident in Patriarch Theophilos III’s official title: His Most Godly Beatitude, the Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and all Palestine, Syria, Arabia, beyond the Jordan River, Cana of Galilee, and Holy Zion.

Theophilos’ spokesman, Issa Missleh, reportedly a Palestinian from Beit Sahur, released a statement on Israeli Independence Day earlier this month stating that Naddaf “represents no one other than himself,” and that, consequently, and on account of his “meddling” in political affairs, Theophilos III has “decided to dismiss him from his position as head of the church in Yafia.”

Naddaf, backed by a signed letter from MK Miri Regev (Likud), the head of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, who claimed to have received assurances from the patriarch that Missleh’s statement was “not correct,” denies that he has been dismissed, and has filed suit against Missleh.

But Naddaf is not in denial. He knows that his life is in danger. He has been called a traitor. His car tires have been slashed; bloody rags have been left outside his apartment building. He is regularly threatened over the telephone and, last year, his son was attacked outside his home by a youth wielding an iron club. The streets of Nazareth, his hometown, are closed to him. “You can’t just be right, you also have to be smart,” he said when explaining the rationale that bars him from walking outdoors.

Speaking from his apartment in Nazareth a week before Pope Francis’ arrival in Israel, along with Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai — who has taken heat in Lebanon for his decision to set foot on the soil of the Zionist entity, a move his predecessor avoided when Pope John Paul II visited – Naddaf acknowledged that his voice, as head of the Forum for Drafting the Christian Community, remains in a distinct minority. But buoyed by a threefold rise in the number of Christian servicemen in the IDF over the past year (still only totaling 100-150 individuals), he is certain of two things: that no one else will lead this crusade and that his community stands at a historic crossroads that will not again present itself.

A soft-spoken rebel

Naddaf was born in Nazareth 40 years ago. Then, as now, the town of Jesus’ birth was majority Muslim. There were, he said, weekly demonstrations “to show that the government is not okay,” but he was never drawn to them. Instead, to his parents’ dismay, he found himself constantly drawn to the church and the Italian monks who taught at his high school. When one of them came to Naddaf’s father, a commercial painter, and told him that his son should join the clergy, he sent him away.

At age 22, though, Naddaf gave up his plans of becoming a lawyer or a police officer and was appointed a priest by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem at the time, Diodoros I. Five years later, the new patriarch, Irenaeus I, made Naddaf his spokesman. And it was at around that time that he began, quietly, agitating for change. “All we learnt in the religious classes is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem with the goats and how he was crucified and that is it. But there is history…[not] just when born, when died, how many miracles performed, who were his apostles, end of story.”

He said that he discussed with Irenaeus I his belief that “Israel is the land of the Jews, the only land they have,” and that the church ought to be more firm in asserting that. The patriarch, he said, told him that raising the issue “will cause lots of noise” and that he shouldn’t “deal with this now.”

Naddaf then admittedly glossed over the ensuing war between Irenaeus I and his successor Theophilos III: the battle over the sale of church lands in East Jerusalem and the exile of Irenaeus I to a nook of an Old City church in Jerusalem, from which he declared to The New York Times in 2011 that his predicament was entirely the fault of Theophilos III, the current patriarch, “to whom ecclesiastical history will ascribe the name traitor!” Instead he said merely that Theophilos III, who replaced Irenaeus in 2005 and is considered far more aligned with the Palestinian cause, appointed “a different spokesperson” and made Naddaf the head of a church in Nazareth and a judge on the Christian religious court.

Naddaf likens the Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel, the minority of the minority, to the Jews of the Diaspora

There, he said, his focus was on change of a different sort: removing the ancient furniture in the religious courts, putting in a computerized system, and appointing a female office manager. The married father of two also pushed for changes in female reproductive rights. “This is not like 2000 years ago,” he said of abortions. “There are cases that we can look at and allow it.”

These calls, he said, helped peg him as “the one who is seen as always causing troubles,” but his reputation as such rippled outside church circles only in October 2012. That was when he and two other clergymen, at the behest of a Christian Arab officer acquaintance, Maj. Ehab Shaliyan, issued the call to serve in the IDF.

“The next day I was lynched in the Arab press,” he said. The threats began pouring in. The two other clergymen stood by his side for a total of 24 hours before backtracking. “All honor to you,” he said. “You lasted for one day.”

‘Enough with the lies’

Speaking casually about the reasons for his call to service, Naddaf called the army “the melting pot” of Israeli society and “the ticket” to full integration. He talked about Christian mothers having to pay the same price as Jewish mothers and the need to equitably “share the burden” of service. But his quest goes well beyond integration.

Naddaf wants to carve out a new identity and a separate community. He believes that in the coming years he can rally 50,000 Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel to align themselves with the Jewish people and with Israel. The first order of business on the path toward that new identity, he said, was “breaking the fear” that has gripped the community. He likened the Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel, the minority of the minority, to the Jews of the Diaspora: good grades, pretty good jobs, few troubles. “Hostages,” he said, adding, “the only time they feel free to identify as Christians is when they are castigating me.”

President Peres, right, with Christian leaders, December 30, 2013 (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)

President Peres, right, with Christian leaders, December 30, 2013 (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)

Once that has been accomplished, the community could examine the facts honestly, he said. Jesus spoke Aramaic. He believed in the Old Testament. The only difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Christianity sees the visions of the prophets as having been realized during the lifetime of Jesus, he said. His teachings revolve simply around the question of “what is more important: the person or the [observance of] Shabbat.”

In fact, he defined his religion as Jewish, his faith as Christian, and his citizenship as Israeli. Christians, he said, “have a bond with the Jews. We have an allegiance with the Jewish people; with the Muslims we are neighbors. There is no covenant there. None at all.”

This was brought into focus by the Arab Spring. Two hours north from Nazareth, he said, extremists are eager to kill Jews and Christians alike. “If the devils there would come in, you would be on Saturday and we would be on Sunday,” he said.

Ever since the day when Maj. Shaliyan approached him and said ‘Father, enough with the lies,” he said, he has felt that “God sent me on this mission. And that he still holds me for this mission.”

In his apartment, pointing to a screen that provides surveillance footage from several positions around his apartment, he said he is certain that no one “ever, ever… will replace me and take this sort of action in the State of Israel.”

Which, in the under-policed Arab sector in Israel, could be ample reason to try to kill him, he acknowledged. “What can I do?” he said. “Whatever happens, happens. I’m not one of those people. I prefer to die like this rather than go back.”