Nowhere is this identity crisis experienced more intensely than among Israels Arab Christians. Counting members of all Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant communities, Arab Christians number less than 150,000 Israelis, a mere 2 percent of the total population of 7.5 million. In contrast, more than 16 percent of the population is Muslim, making the Israeli Arab Christian community a minority within a minority.
Arabs are not the only Christians in Israel. An estimated 300,000 people live in Israel according to the Law of Return, but they are officially classified as non-Jewish. Who are they? Generally, most come from post-Soviet Eastern Europe with family backgrounds that are Orthodox Christian. In addition to foreign church personnel, many Christian guest workers — Filipinos, Moldavians and Romanians — live and work in Israel.
Most of Israels Arab Christians live in the Galilee, with as many as 110,000 calling it home. Similar to other Christians throughout the Middle East, they have the lowest birthrate in Israel and tend to emigrate in disproportionately greater numbers. Yet, bucking statistics for now, the community remains relatively stable.
Life is simpler and better in the Galilee, explained Irene Hanna Kassabri, a bubbly Latin Catholic who teaches music and English at an elementary school of the Latin Patriarchate in Jaffa-Nazareth, a suburb of Nazareth, which enrolls Christians, Druze and Muslims. A former resident of East Jerusalem, she moved to the mixed Christian-Muslim town 17 years ago after she married her husband, who hails from the Galilee.
In Jerusalem you feel the political problems a lot more, and it influences peoples way of thinking, continued Mrs. Kassabri.
Watching proudly as a group of young students, dressed in traditional embroidered Palestinian dress, enters the stage of the schools auditorium, Mrs. Kassabri said she has much more contact with Jews in the Galilee than she ever had in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.
We have a supermarket here and Jews enter freely and say hello, she said of an act that would be unheard of in polarized Jerusalem. Our children learn Hebrew in school. When I first arrived I didnt speak Hebrew, which was a problem. My daughter is in high school and I want her to specialize in Hebrew. It will be good for her future.
Schools in the Galilee maintain very high standards — one reason Israels Arab Christian students consistently outscore local Jewish and Muslim peers on college-entrance exams. Many Arab Christians study at Israels top universities, or go abroad to study.
But when it comes time for these same stellar students to find employment in Israel, or settle down in predominantly Jewish areas, they often discover that as Arabs they can neither get their foot in the door nor secure a mortgage on a home. And while Israeli law guarantees equal rights in housing and employment, the reality for many Israeli Arabs — Christian and Muslim — can be frustrating to say the least.
To Muslims, were Christians. To Jews, were Arabs, said Jamal Shahade, whose Melkite Greek Catholic family runs the House of Grace, a halfway house in Haifa for high-risk youth, poor families and ex-convicts of all creeds.
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Tags: Middle East Christianity Israel Cultural Identity Christian-Muslim relations