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Israel Rights Historic Wrong for Aramean Christians

September 22, 2014

“Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.’”  (Deuteronomy 26:5)

Israel officially recognized Aramean as a separate population group last week after Interior Minister Gideon Saar instructed the Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA) to allow Christian Arabs to register as Arameans, an ancient people group that Encyclopedia Britannica says ceased to exist centuries ago.

Many of Israel’s 160,000 Christians who had been registered as Arabs are now eligible to re-register as Arameans.

The decision applies to Christians currently living in Israel who identify as Aramean, can speak Aramaic, and are from the Maronite, Orthodox Aramaic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic or Syriac Catholic denominations.

The decision reflects a growing demand on the part of some Christian Arabs to not be identified as Arabs.  In fact, some Aramaic Christians applied as a group for a status change to the Interior Ministry as far back as 2010.

MK Yariv Levin, who has been arguing for such a move said, “I don’t try to change the reality; the reality is there.  There is a big difference between Christians and Muslims, and they deserve recognition and separate representation.”

A map of ancient Mesopotamia, where Aramaic originated.  Abraham was born in Mesopotamia, and God called him to the Promised Land of Israel.

A map of ancient Mesopotamia, where Aramaic originated. Abraham was born in Mesopotamia, and God called him to the Promised Land of Israel.

Aramean Christians predate Arab Muslims.

They are the descendants of a Semitic people who originated in ancient Mesopotamia, what is now Syria and Iraq.  In the seventh century when Arabs from the Arabian peninsula invaded and conquered the Promised Land, forcing Islam on its inhabitants, basically displacing Aramaic as the lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent.

That invasion was eventually followed by Muslim Turks and more Arabs during the Ottoman Occupation.

Fertile Crescent

The Fertile Crescent, which has much evidence of early writing and complex societies, is often referred to as the Cradle of Civilization.

Father Gabriel Nadaf, the spiritual leader of the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum, a movement that encourages Christians to integrate into Israeli society and volunteer for Israeli army service, praised the decision.

Nadaf said that it “corrects a historic injustice that wrongly defined Israel’s citizens of eastern-Christian descent as ‘Christian Arabs,’ although other than their spoken language, they have absolutely no connection to the Arab nationality.”

In a letter to Israel’s Interior Minister, Nadaf thanked Saar for Israeli society’s “pluralism and its openness to absorbing religious and ethnic minorities out of love and acceptance, without any discrimination, according to the principles of democracy, individual freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of worship.”

Father Nadaf said that the Christians wish to become “an inseparable part” of Israeli society and make their voices heard “in the social, economic, academic and political sphere in the state of Israel.”

“This is the first time that a Middle Eastern state recognizes the Aramean-Christian minority as a legitimate nationality and acts to preserve it, the teaching of its language and its absorption in society,” he wrote.

“In contrast with the region’s countries, in which Christians and other minorities are systematically murdered, churches are destroyed and people are forced to hide their identities just because they are defined as Christians—while with every decade that the world progresses, the Arab countries go a decade backward—the state of Israel has made a giant leap forward.”

Shadi Halul, a former lieutenant in the IDF Paratroopers’ Brigade and the spokesperson of the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum, said, “We are not Arabs, and we are not Palestinians.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets Father Nadaf.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets Father Nadaf.

Israeli Member of Parliament (MK) Yariv Levin who has backed this move, says that he will be promoting a series of measures designed to distinguish between Christian citizens of Israel and Muslim citizens of Israel, which he believes will allow for a greater involvement of Christians in the state such as enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces.

In February, a law sponsored by Levin to recognize Arab Christians as a separate people group from Arab Muslims passed in the Knesset with a vote of 31 to 6.  This law gives Christians their own representation in government and in groups, such as those that promote workers’ rights.  (HaAretz)

“It’s not surprising that Christians want to be separated from Muslims. This is the only place in the Middle East where they have security and freedom of worship.  Many Christians don’t want to be known as Arabs, but as Maronites or Aramites,” Levin said.  (JPost)

Israeli Member of Parliament (Knesset) Yariv Levin

Israeli Member of Parliament (Knesset) Yariv Levin

As expected, that law and this recent decision by the Ministry of the Interior incurred the wrath of MK Ahmed Tibi (Arab Movement for Change Party known as Ta’al) who sees these measures as an attempt to undermine Arab influence on the state.

“It’s a high-handed attempt to divide and rule the Arab minority in Israel,” said Tibi.  “The Christians are an authentic part of the national Arab Palestinian minority in Israel, and no right-wing political decision will change this fact.”

Referring to the Muslim invasion of the region some 1,400 years ago, Levin defended the decision saying that Muslim conquest “does not make us Arabs.”  (HaAretz)

Minister Gideon Saar’s decision reflects the goal of the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum as voiced by its founder Maj. Ihab Shlayan when he said:  “Christians won’t be held hostage, won’t be ruled any longer by those who would force their ethnicity, religion, and way of life on them.  We won’t be protected wards and hide behind the groups who control the street.  We want to live in Israel—brothers in arms and brothers in peace, to stand guard and be on the front line in protecting the Holy Land, the Land of Israel.”  (Israel Hayom)

A Maronite church in Jaffa, Israel.

A Maronite church in Jaffa, Israel.

Israel now recognizes that Christians are increasingly coming to the support of the Jewish state.

In fact, on Sunday, Christian broadcasters and ministry leaders put forth a non-denominational effort to help replenish Israel’s physical, spiritual and emotional resources while the current ceasefire holds in a telethon called “For Israel’s Sake: Joining Hands—Saving Lives.” 

“We believe God’s love for and commitment to the Jewish people and the nation of Israel is permanent and irrevocable,” the For Israel’s Sake website stated.  “The nation of Israel holds a special place in God’s heart, and so it does in ours.  We also believe it is our duty to stand hand in hand with our spiritual brothers and support them with our prayers, our actions, and our wallets.”

Heart to Heart, which provides equipment to paramedics and supports blood banks in Israel, is one organization that benefited.  Its director Jonathan Feldstein noted the timeliness of the event.

“Aside from being the most sacred season on the Jewish calendar, what makes it all the more meaningful is that this is the very week during which the planned Hamas ‘mega-attack’ was supposed to occur.  Going from a time of what could have been a great tragedy, to a time of seeing strong and widespread Christian support for Israel is really inspiring,” he said.

“There is no coincidence in this.  Seeing Christians stand up and say that they are willing to do their part and step forward when there is a need, is truly a strong symbol of connection between the Christian world and Israel.  This switch of fate is simply the hand of God,” he concluded.  (BIN)

“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”  (Proverbs 17:17)

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