Israel’s Christian Arabs have been nervously watching the persecution of the Christian populations in neighboring Egypt and Syria in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ protests. Those observations have prompted a group of Christian Arabs to form a new political party in Israel, one which encourages serving side-by-side with Jewish Israelis in the Israel Defense Forces.
The new party is called Bnai Brit HaHadasha which can be translated as the Sons of the New Covenant. The name can also be translated as Sons of the New Testament or Sons of the New Alliance. (In Hebrew, the New Testament is known as the Brit HaHadasha).
Christian Arabs in Israel in the past have been allied with Muslim-run political parties as they share the same language and often live in the same cities and towns.
The Times of Israel points out, “The effort is part of a growing assertiveness on the part of Christian Arabs in the wake of the Arab Spring, as they increasingly sound calls for an identity distinct from Israel’s broader Arab society, which is around 90% Muslim.”
As Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Mohammed Morsi was being ousted from power, the new party wrote on July 3rd on its Facebook page, “What happened in Egypt…should be a lesson!...It’s not just majority rule, it’s protecting the rights of minorities by the majority.”
Bashara Shlayan, 58, a ship captain from Nazareth, founded the new party. In an interview with Israel Hayom, he says he was motivated to enter politics not only because of the rapid changes gripping the region, but also because the Arab political parties in Israel predominantly serve the interests of Muslims and have a communist platform.
"People see what is happening now in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. They understand where we are living. I tell them, 'For 65 years we have given to the Arab communist parties; 65 years and they have done nothing!' Give me three years, I will manage and solve their problems,” he says.
"Look at what the Arab parties have done. Just talking nonsense about nothing but communism; [MK Dov] Khenin and [MK Mohammad] Barakeh (Hadash/Communist Party), what have they done for us? They want us to disappear and are not acting according to the integrity of their country's citizens," Shlayan adds.
Further distinguishing himself from his Muslim Arab neighbors, Shlayan says he is an “Arab Christian in Israel who recognizes the land of Israel as belonging to the Jews."
"Firstly we are completely Israeli, and then comes religion,” he says.
There is fierce opposition among Muslims living in Israel to serve in the IDF, a position that in the past influenced Christian Arabs to opt out. Though there is a draft in Israel, the government does not require Christian or Muslim Arab citizens to serve, due to possible conflicts of loyalty as family members may reside in Lebanon, Syria or other Middle Eastern countries still officially in a state of war with Israel.
Shlayan says he wants to change that, and helped his nephew and son enlist in the IDF. Since they were the trailblazers, that effort was a challenge.
"When I wanted my son to join the army we decided to create a forum for Christian enlistment. We also invited priests from the church to a conference we held in Nazareth Illit. One of them is the Church patriarch, Father Gabriel Nadaf [who has drawn the ire of Arab MKs recently for encouraging Christian Arab youth to join the IDF], who preferred [our way] and said we were right."
Today Shlayan’s nephew is a major in a combat unit.
Because he publicly backed enlistment for Israel’s 130,000 Christian Arab citizens, Father Nadaf was “banned from entering Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation, and was threatened with being fired from his position in Yafia. The tires of his car were punctured and a rag with bloodstains was laid at his doorstep,” writes the Times of Israel.
The Jerusalem Post reported that two Arab Members of Knesset (MKs) Bassel Ghattas and Haneen Zoabi wrote to the Greek Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Theophillis III demanding that Father Nadaf stop supporting Christian Arab enlistment or be fired from serving as priest in the town of Yafia in the Galilee near Nazareth.
“It’s unacceptable that Arab MKs should think that they can be Trojan horses in the Knesset and send letters of incitement against a Christian priest who encourages young Christians to enlist in the IDF,” Member of Knesset Miri Regev said in response.
Christian party founder Shlayan draws a comparison with the United States, saying, "You need to be like any citizen. If you were in America, you wouldn't be an American? At least in Israel, those who stayed here [after the 1948 independence war] have been given the right to be a citizen and to integrate. But Israel's first demand, which I support - and which needs to be understood - is that Israel is the home of the Jewish people."
He also has harsh words for the current position of Israeli Arab parties which oppose the State of Israel, instead offering public support for Palestinian political ambitions.
"It's stupidity. You can be against something pertaining to a certain matter, but the state does a lot of things, so be a partner! Don't always be against. They think being against Israel is Arab nationalism, that it is the manly thing. But if you oppose this way of thinking, you are a traitor. This is what needs to be changed. It's stupidity. So I demand that we, the Christians, be recognized as loyal citizens of the state,” he says.
According to Israel Hayom, Israel is the only country in the region where Christians are not fleeing to the West en masse.
Israel Hayom writes of the new party, “This is a historic turning point with profound and far-reaching consequences for Israeli society. If the party is successful, it will provide an alternative for that sector of Israel's Arab population that seeks full partnership in Israeli society, and which sees a Jewish democratic Israel as its home.”
According to Maariv, 90 Christian high school graduates joined the IDF in recent months. That’s a three-fold increase compared with 2010.