Today I attended a lecture by Fadoul Mazzawi entitled An Arab Christian Family in Israel (and subtitled Between a Hammer and an Anvil).
I meet Mr. Mazzawi in church in the Galillee a few weeks ago and was struck by his powerful conversion story and his testimony. He is a wonderful leader and father. I am impressed by his humanity and general goodness. I am very pleased that he is getting attention as a leader and spokesman for a very conflicted minority group. In fact, the biggest criticism I would have about the event today is that this personal side of Mr. Mazzawi did not come to the forefront. I was interested in his remarks but would have been even more interested to hear his personal reflections and insights. Nonetheless, Mr Mazzawi presented a pretty stark picture of the social challenges facing Christian Arabs in Israel. Mr. Mazzawi painted a picture of a group divided, torn by internal and external divisions, lacking solid leadership and on the decline ( the population of Christians in Israel has decreased by 40% since 1948!)
As some of my long term readers know, the Israel Palestinian conflict has been one of my life-long interests. I even spent a summer several years ago living in Israel and interning at a Bedouin housing rights NGO. While there, I conducted extensive research on identity issues in the Bedouin community and found an identity conflict among Bedouin youth who were torn between aspects of their Arab, Bedouin, Palestinian and Muslim identity.
Because of my background in this field, I was especially interested to hear Mr. Mazzawi’s remarks. He spoke of the difficulty facing Christian Arabs as they face a stark identity dilemma. Are they first and foremost Arab, Palestian, Christian or Israeli? Mr. Mazzawi pointed out that most Christian Arabs have been in the holy land for centuries and that most have relatives scattered throughout the neighboring countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. As such, they do not neatly fit in as Israeli’s.
In Israel, less than 2% of the overall population is Christian and about 60% of those are some form of Catholic with the rest divided between Russian/Greek Orthodox and some small Anglican and Protestant groups. This means that even in some holy sites there is incredible discord. For instance in Nazareth there are three different churches of the annunciation and in Jerusalem the church of the Holy Sepulture is literally divided into portions with the Armenians taking their place on the roof since they could not find a place inside ( Protestants claim a separate location called The Garden Tomb as the site of the burial and resurrection). This disunity prevents efforts to mobilize and seek greater recognition. Mr. Mazzawi mentioned that he is now involved in the formation of a new organization of Arab Christians to attempt to unify them with one voice, but this will not be an easy endeavor.
Audience questions were also illuminating. One listener asked about the debate over military service for Arabs in Israel. In response, Mr. Mazzawi mentioned that many Arabs in Israel have a victim mentality which stops them from serving or collaborating until they receive the recompense they feel they deserve. He said that this view was not shared by all, and that many, including himself, welcome the possibility of service as a way to integrate the disparate populations of the state of Israel. ( A large percentage of the Israel Arab-Christians live in the north of Israel in rather isolated communities. Only a small percentage live in mixed cities such as Jaffa or Haifa. As such, the interaction between different religious and social groups in Israel is rather low.
Because of this stark reality, it is no surprise that so many Christians are leaving Israel for places in which they can feel safe and secure in their identity. The situation is likely to get even more complicated with the influx of some Christians from other parts of the world ( Philippines, South America and the Former USSR) as permanent residents or guest workers.
Overall, the picture painted by Mr. Mazzawi was stark but far from all negative. He pointed out that Christians in Israel have made great advances in society in terms of achievements in education, non-profit and government sectors. Christian schools are often the top in the country in terms of matriculation. Meanwhile, Christian Arabs are an over represented group in Arab politics proportional to size. As such, Mr. Mazzawi pointed out that some Christian Arabs do manage the difficult process of finding a place in a society in which they are twice outsiders.
Overall, it was a fascinating presentation and really helped me see the stark reality facing the future growth of Christianity in the Holy Land. I also really enjoyed Mr. Mazzawi’s Caligraphy which was on display near the lecture hall. He is an incredibly talented man and I wish him much luck. We need more powerful leaders like him in order to ensure the future of the church and Christianity in Israel!
Mazzawi was presented a plaque for his participation today which is usually only given to diplomats, but this seemed like an appropriate gesture for a man who is an ambassador of sorts for such a unique and often ignored minority