Nazareth’s dwindling Christian populace torn between moving out, fighting back
This month’s local elections underline the bleak and bitter rivalries in the city of Jesus’s childhood
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” wondered Nathaneal, a disciple of Jesus, in the Gospel of John. Asked today, that question would have many of the city’s residents hard-pressed for an answer.
The upcoming municipal elections, scheduled for October 22, find the largest Arab city in Israel impoverished and depressed. A nationwide study, conducted by the Ministry of Public Security in August, revealed that Nazareth residents are the most likely Israelis to fear falling victim to crime. They also reported the lowest sense of personal security, along with the inhabitants of the crime-ridden cities of Ramle and Lod.
“Things have deteriorated in this city,” said an elderly woman walking down Nazareth’s main street on Thursday, wearing a necklace with a large golden Cross. “No citizen gets any help — not from the municipality, nor from the government, nor from the police.”
Like its Christian twin. Bethlehem, in the West Bank, Nazareth’s demographic makeup has dramatically changed over the past six decades, a fact some residents tie to the deteriorating sense of security and general “low quality of life.” From being a city with a large Christian majority before 1948, today 70 percent of Nazareth’s 80,000 residents are Muslim. The change dates back to Israel’s War of Independence, when an influx of internally displaced villagers from the surrounding area relocated to Nazareth. Researchers also point to a significantly higher Muslim birth rate.
Religious tension in the city came to the fore in the early 2000s, when the local Muslims began constructing a new mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation, the city’s towering Christian landmark. In early 2002, the government decided to halt construction on the site, built over the grave of Salladin’s nephew Shihab a-Din, following massive pressure from the Vatican. The Muslims were infuriated by the move, but put up little resistance when an illegal structure they had built on the site was bulldozed the following year.
Ramez Jaraisy, the city’s Communist Christian mayor nearing 20 years in office, downplayed confessionalism as a significant factor in Nazareth. Tawfik Zayyad, his predecessor in office who was killed in a 1994 car crash, was a Muslim, he remarked. Over the past century, Christian and Muslim mayors governed the city, paying little attention to the religious affiliation of their constituents.
“I was elected four times in direct elections by both Muslims and Christians,” said Jaraisy. “Some people use religion to achieve political goals. We have no religious dispute outside small fundamentalist groups of Muslims and Christians. They are a very small minority.”
One member of that “very small minority” is Nazareth resident Bishara Shlayan, a retired captain in the Israeli merchant navy, who is in the process of forming a political party for Christian Arabs living in Israel. The party, Shlayan said, is geared at confronting what he regards as the gradual encroachment of the city’s Muslim majority on Nazareth’s historic Christian symbols.
“Mary’s Well used to have a big blue sign explaining its history. They removed the sign in order to erase any trace of Christianity, naming it ‘the Nazareth Stream.’ Even the city bus announces the stop as ‘Nazareth Stream.’ Why? Others may ignore this, but I consider it very significant.”
Shlayan said that solving the problem of Christian emigration from the city required more than merely electing a Christian mayor. Change, he reasoned, must come from the Knesset, before “all the city’s Christians leave because of the gangs demanding protection money.”
Jaraisy said Shlayan is a “collaborator” with the Israeli authorities, striving to create needless tension between Christians and Muslims in the city.
“He will fail,” the mayor asserted.
But Shlayan was not the only Christian in town speaking his mind. Waiting for his son to exit a church high school downtown, Ibrahim said he left Nazareth 14 years ago for the nearby Jewish city of Upper Nazareth — and has never looked back.
“If you gave me all of Nazareth for free, I wouldn’t come back,” Ibrahim said, adding that he recently sold his 10-apartment building in the Muslim neighborhood of Jabel Hammoudeh. “We faced problems of racism there. Almost every apartment in the building has an illegal weapon.
“Religion plays a big role in Nazareth. When the Christians were a majority, there was no problem… Our mentality is more European and our religion says ‘Love each other.’ ”
Ibrahim said his new Jewish neighbors in Upper Nazareth are very friendly, as long as he doesn’t discuss politics with them.
Hanin Zoabi, the controversial member of Knesset from the Arab nationalist party Balad, joined Nazareth’s mayoral race in late August. Zoabi, a secular Muslim — who sailed on the Mavi Marmara to Gaza in 2010, castigated the IDF over its interception of the vessel, and was only allowed to run for the Knesset in January after court intervention — acknowledged that Christians are leaving Nazareth in greater numbers than Muslims, but said that this is due to the Christians’ generally higher socioeconomic level.
“Muslims want to leave Nazareth just as badly as Christians do,” she said. “Christians aren’t moving to Upper Nazareth because they are more welcome there than Muslims… For the state of Israel, if you’re not a Jew you’re either a foreigner or a threat.”
By forming a new Christian party, Zoabi added, Shlayan was “selling his honor and his nation.”
But the Christian navy captain seemed unscathed by that critique. While waiting for the paperwork for his new party, he recently appealed to Tourism Minister Uzi Landau to place the largest statue of Jesus in the world on the city’s Mount Precipice, from which — according to Christian tradition — the heathen residents of Nazareth tried to push their savior to his death, and failed.
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