You wouldn't expect Palestinian Christian leaders to embrace a movement that enlists Christian Arabs in Israel's military. And you'd be right.
"Our people struggle with our country for statehood," Boutros Mansour, general director of the Nazareth Baptist School, told Christianity Today. "I oppose it, and I think about 80 percent of Arab Christians oppose it."
But the new movement, started by a Greek Orthodox priest and a Galilee sea captain, is meeting with some moderate success. In 2013, approximately 100 Arab Christians enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces, triple the number from 2012.
"We plan to integrate Christians into Israeli society and state institutions—to serve the country and do their part," said cofounder Gabriel Nadaf, a Nazareth-based priest, at a recent recruitment forum. "This country protects us, and it deserves to have our contribution to its defense and prosperity."
Last year's expiration of a law that exempted most of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews from mandatory military service was one of the Jewish state's hottest debates. But Israel has for a long time wanted to enlist more Arabs in its military beyond the "incredibly small fraction" of current conscripts, says Noah Haiduc-Dale, a Mideast history scholar at Centenary College in New Jersey.
Bishara Shilyan, the other founder of the movement, is concerned the status quo has led to a loss of Christian identity in the Holy Land. He points to Nazareth, where Christians had recently been the majority but now make up only 30 percent of the population.
"We are emigrating out of our historic places," he recently told the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom. Israelis dismiss Christians as Arabs, he says, and Arab Muslim leaders dismiss them because they are Christians. "They have abandoned and left us Christians alone as a minority among minorities in Israel."
Salim Munayer, a Jerusalem-based reconciliation expert who has studied Christian Arab political activism, says Shilyan's frustration mirrors how many Arab Christians are "withdrawing both from the Jews and the Muslims." He sees a trend away from civic involvement.
But instead of controversial military service, Munther Na'um, chairman of the Association of Baptist Churches in Shafr Amr, believes that Arab Christian youth can better serve Israel by doing two years of service in civilian hospitals and schools. An estimated 500 youths did so this year, part of a current surge in Arab volunteerism. "I see the forces impacting them, pushing them to choose isolation," said Munayer. "But we, as Christians, need to engage in the issues of society. We cannot live in a ghetto."
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