Category Archives: Israel

Secret Sin and the Last Hope for Arab Christians

It is “the secret sin” that no one wants to talk about, according to one Iraq-raised Christian. It is, she says, “the elephant in the room in the Arab Christian sub-culture.”

The writer, Luma Simms, is describing, in an article in The Federalist journal, the sorry phenomenon of anti-Semitism, so rife today among Mideast Christians. She adds sadly: “Anyone who claims that the Arab world – Muslim and Christian – is not pathologically anti-Semitic is delusional.”

Indeed, it was Britain’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who has written that it was Coptic and Maronite Christians who introduced the blood libel – the slander that Jews use the blood of gentiles in religious rituals – into Egypt and Syria in the 19th century.

Simms says it is this anti-Semitism that prevents Mideast Christians from seeking assistance of any kind from Israel, even as they suffer from the most grotesque persecution at the hands of Islamic State and others.

She writes: “Israel is the last hope for Arab Christians; it’s as simple as that….As the genocide of Middle Eastern Christians continues, the only hope of an Arab Christian remnant – a remnant that would keep and pass on its beliefs, traditions, and customs – is through help from the state of Israel.”

She even calls on Israel to take the initiative in working to rescue besieged Christians.

Sadly, this is unlikely. Last year I interviewed US citizen and Israeli resident Lela Gilbert, author of “Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner,” and I asked if Israel might even become a refuge for Christians fleeing the Islamic State onslaught in Iraq and Syria.

No, she said. Israelis are very sensitive to infiltrators, and a sudden influx of non-Jewish, Arabic-speaking refugees would surely provoke controversy. In any case, as she noted, so prevalent is anti-Semitism that many Mideast Christians would themselves probably reject the notion of coming to Israel.

Yet Simms writes that Israel has hospitals and medical units at its borders and has quietly been helping many Syrians caught up in the bloodshed. In addition, it is worth remembering that while Christians are today being relentlessly persecuted throughout much of the Middle East, there is one shining exception – Israel itself. Christianity is thriving in Israel, with the numbers of churches and believers growing (of course from a very low base).

Last year I wrote a column noting that growing numbers of Palestinians appeared to be sympathising with Islamic State. This came after the Pope had issued a call for an independent Palestinian state.

I quoted one commentator who said opinion surveys indicated that, if free elections were held in a Palestinian state, they would likely result in a Hamas majority, including elements of Islamic State. And if this Palestinian government were given control of the Old City of Jerusalem it would lead to the destruction of Christian holy sites, as has already happened in Iraq.

“Christianity survives in Judea and Samaria because Jews are willing to die for Jerusalem,” wrote this commentator. “How many Christians are willing to die for Jerusalem?”

Christianity is under attack in most parts of the Middle East outside Israel. Yet too many Arab Christians persist in their “secret sin.” It is a sin that could be hastening their destruction.

The Language of Jesus Under Attack

Attacks on an ancient Syriac church in Turkey constitute another blow to Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.

According to a press release from the World Council of Arameans, fighting in late-January between the Turkish army and Kurdish militia groups in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir has caused many deaths and extensive damage.

Diyarbakir, with a population of more than 900,000, formerly boasted a flourishing Aramaic-speaking Christian community, but this number has declined sharply over the past 100 years. The city is home to the Syriac Orthodox St Mary Church, which dates back to the third century and was once a center of learning for the Aramaic language, as well as attracting some of the Eastern church’s most famous patriarchs and theologians.

Its priest, Father Yusuf Akbulut, stayed in the church until the last possible opportunity, before fleeing.

The press release quoted him as saying: “When we escaped, we saw so many streets completely destroyed. Our hometown was unrecognizable and it looked like a war zone. We don’t know what has happened to our church, because we didn’t dare to look while we were running for our lives. Now we have little hope left that there can be a future for us, Aramean Christians, to stay in the land of our forefathers.”

Subsequent reports stated that parts of the church walls have fallen.

Aramaic was, at the time of Jesus, the most common language of the Middle East, and it remained widely spoken, particularly among Christian communities, for many hundreds of years.

But recent decades have not been kind to the language. Younger generations in the Middle East, even if they grew up with Aramaic, often ended up mainly using Arabic, the dominant tongue. In addition, there has been a steady exodus from the Middle East of Aramaic speakers – intensified over the past few years with the attacks of Islamic State – with many moving to the West.

Ironically though, the language is seeing something of a mini-revival in an unexpected part of the region – in Israel.

Gush Halav – known in Arabic as Jish – is a small town in the Galilee Valley, in northern Israel. More than half the population are Maronite Christians, and they still use Aramaic in their church liturgy, and even often speak it.

Since 2011, under the auspices of the Israeli Ministry of Education, Aramaic has been taught in the town’s schools. And in 2014 the Israeli government recognized the country’s 20,000 Aramaic people as a distinct nationality.

It is a sign of hope. But will it be enough? Some experts maintain that Aramaic will disappear as a living language by the end of the century. That would be a bitter blow though it pales into insignificance when compared to a more distressing looming tragedy. Can Christianity itself continue to flourish in the Middle East until the end of this century?

Threats Against Christians in Jerusalem – A Disturbing Trend

It is disturbing to learn of a growing number of Islamist threats against Christians in the holy city of Jerusalem. The latest such incident comes in the form of leaflets that were distributed there recently, purporting to be issued by “Islamic State, Jerusalem Emirate.”

The leaflets state that Islamic State knows where most Christians in Jerusalem live, and warn that they have until Eid al-Fitr – the festival marking the end of Ramadan on July 19th – to leave the city or be killed.

Last November I interviewed Karen Dunham, pastor of the Living Bread International Church in Jerusalem, and she told me that Muslim neighbors had attacked her church, although this appeared to be partly a dispute over property rights, as well as over religion.

She added that the police were slow to make arrests, “because the attackers are Arab Israelis, and we are foreigners and Christians. The police did not want to cause trouble within the Arab community, so they really did not do much to help us. If we were of the Islamic or Jewish faith we would have had much more support.”

In May this year a group of Muslims launched an attack on Jerusalem’s Christian quarter. Nashat Filmon, general director of the Palestinian branch of The Bible Society, was quoted as linking this to Islamic State.

Also in May an imam at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem posted online a video calling for Muslims to be constantly at war with the “polytheist enemy,” meaning Christians and Jews.

It is not just Islamists. Jewish extremists have also engaged in anti-Christian activity. For example, they are believed to be behind an arson attack in June on the Church of the Multiplication, near the Sea of Galilee, the traditional site where Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 people with bread and fish.

But it is the Islamist threat that is the major concern, with a growing number of anti-Christian incidents in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, and rising support for Islamic State among some Israeli Muslims.

Christians remain free to worship in Israel, and Christianity there is thriving and growing. Nowhere else in the Middle East is this true. No wonder Islamic State is issuing its threats. We have seen what the organization has done in the areas under its control, aggressively wiping out any Christian presence.

There are many calls – even from Christians – for Jerusalem to be placed under Palestinian control or, at best, under some kind of international administration. How long, then, would Christians be free to worship? How long might our churches and monasteries even remain standing?

These latest disturbing incidents are surely grounds for insisting that Jerusalem remains governed and protected by Israel.

Speaking the Language of Jesus

I sometimes speak the language of Jesus when I fill my car with gasoline.

That’s because the friendly young couple who run one of my local gas stations are from northern Iraq, and their language – modern Aramaic – is apparently derived from the language that Jesus spoke. They have been teaching me a few words.

Actually, I don’t know if Jesus really did say shlama ‘lokhun (hello) or baseema (thank you). There seem to be many variants of the language, and of course modern dialects presumably differ from the classical language, just as do modern and classical Greek, and modern Italian and Latin.

But I do know that Jesus said Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? (Matthew 27:46), and my friends at the gas station say that’s pretty close to how they would say it.

Tragically, we now witness the rise of Islamic State, which has launched a campaign of genocide against the Christians of northern Iraq and southwest Syria, where the language is also spoken. Numerous residents have fled as ISIS gains more territory. The future of Aramaic as a living language is in doubt.

But now comes a rare piece of Mideast good news. A revival in Aramaic is occurring in, of all places, Israel.

Gush Halav – known in Arabic as Jish – is a small town in the Galilee Valley, in northern Israel. More than half the population are Maronite Christians, who still use Aramaic in their church liturgy, and even often speak it.

Since 2011, under the auspices of the Israeli Ministry of Education, Aramaic has been taught in the town’s schools. And last year the Israeli government recognized the country’s 20,000 Aramaic people as a distinct nationality.

So, as Christians increasingly flee from many of their traditional lands in the face of murder or slavery, it is heartening to see a tiny part of the region where they are able to live in peace, and where their traditions are respected and encouraged.

Indeed, Christians are now under threat of subjugation throughout much of the Mideast, with Israel as a shining exception. Christianity there is actually thriving and growing. For that praise God.

ISIS Threatens Christians in Jerusalem with “Vengeance”

A report that an ISIS-linked group has been threatening Christians in Jerusalem underscores the dangers inherent in placing the city under some kind of international control, as advocated by many.

According to The Times of Israel:

Leaflets threatening Christians and signed by an organization referring to itself as the “Islamic State in Palestine” were distributed in East Jerusalem Thursday, Israel’s Channel 10 news reported.

The flyers, which displayed an image of the black flag associated with the Islamic State terrorist group, warned Christian residents of the city that “vengeance” will be exacted upon them, the TV report stated.

Last month I noted that Pope Francis had reportedly described Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace,” despite Palestinian persecution of Christians.

And two weeks ago I wrote about how the Vatican was calling for an independent Palestinian state, “ignoring the growing links between ISIS and Hamas, which controls Gaza.”

I also quoted the commentator David Goldman:

Judging from the opinion polls, [if free elections were held] a State of Palestine today would have a Hamas majority of about two-thirds, with substantial representation from elements of ISIS. Why would the Vatican wish this plague upon itself? If a Palestinian State rules the Old City of Jerusalem, the Christian holy sites will be razed by Muslim radicals, just as they were in Iraq. Christianity survives in Judea and Samaria because Jews are willing to die for Jerusalem. How many Christians are willing to die for Jerusalem? The Vatican should ponder this question.

These words ring even truer now. Christians are not universally loved in Israel, but they are free to worship, and Christianity is thriving and growing. Nowhere else in the Middle East is this true. No wonder ISIS wishes to threaten our Christian brothers and sisters in Israel. And it is only while Jerusalem remains in Jewish hands that we can expect they will be protected.

Israel – Fighting for the Future of Christianity

Fewer than 100 Jews are believed to be living in Yemen, and the number could soon drop to zero, as Houthi rebels fight to expand their control of the country.

The Houthis are Shia Muslims, supported by Iran, and their slogan, which now adorns the walls of Yemen’s capital Sana, makes clear their priorities: “God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. God curse the Jews. Victory for Islam.”

Though Jews predate Muslims in Yemen by hundreds – possibly thousands – of years, most fled some time ago to Israel. The remnant still in Yemen, now under virtual house arrest and victims of intensifying persecution, are likely to try to follow.

It is a reminder of the crucial importance of Israel as a refuge for displaced Jews. Many who criticize the country for its treatment of Palestinians during its War of Independence forget that it subsequently took in nearly 600,000 Jewish refugees ethnically cleansed from the Arab world.

Christians should remember this when we look at the Middle East today. Few Jews are now living in the Arab world. How much longer will Christians remain?

For Christians are today being relentlessly persecuted throughout most of the region, though with one shining exception – Israel itself. In fact, Christianity is thriving in Israel, with the numbers of churches and believers growing (of course from a low base).

I recently interviewed US citizen and Israeli resident Lela Gilbert, author of “Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner,” and I asked if Israel might even become a refuge for Christians fleeing the ISIS onslaught in Iraq and Syria.

No, she said. Israelis are very sensitive to infiltrators, and a sudden influx of non-Jewish, Arabic-speaking refugees would surely provoke controversy. But she also pointed to a sad reality. Many Mideast Christians are quite anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish, and would themselves probably reject the notion of coming to Israel.

Historian Walter Russell Mead made this point in a recent Wall Street Journal article, where he noted that, as a survival strategy, Mideast Christians had over the years developed a strongly pro-Arab, anti-Zionist identity.

Perhaps this helps explain the recent decision of the Pope – misguided in my view – to embrace the Palestinian cause during a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Ignoring the growing links between ISIS and Hamas, which controls Gaza, he called for an independent Palestinian state.

Subsequently, the esteemed commentator David Goldman wrote:

“Judging from the opinion polls, [if free elections were held] a State of Palestine today would have a Hamas majority of about two-thirds, with substantial representation from elements of ISIS. Why would the Vatican wish this plague upon itself? If a Palestinian State rules the Old City of Jerusalem, the Christian holy sites will be razed by Muslim radicals, just as they were in Iraq. Christianity survives in Judea and Samaria because Jews are willing to die for Jerusalem. How many Christians are willing to die for Jerusalem? The Vatican should ponder this question.”

It is not just the Jewish remnant of Yemen who need Israel. It is, also, every Christian around the world who cares at all about the future of our faith in the land of its birth.

Palestine, the Pope, Persecution and Pious Pretense

Pope Francis has described Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace” during a meeting at the Vatican.

I wrote about similar hypocrisy last Christmas, and it seems an opportune time to repost my piece. Note too the excellent column by David Goldman on this issue. He writes:

Judging from the opinion polls, [if free elections were held] a State of Palestine today would have a Hamas majority of about two-thirds, with substantial representation from elements of ISIS. Why would the Vatican wish this plague upon itself? If a Palestinian State rules the Old City of Jerusalem, the Christian holy sites will be razed by Muslim radicals, just as they were in Iraq. Christianity survives in Judea and Samaria because Jews are willing to die for Jerusalem. How many Christians are willing to die for Jerusalem? The Vatican should ponder this question.

So here is my own column from Christmas. It was titled “Proclaiming Christ, Persecuting Christians.”

The latest attempts by Palestinian leaders to enlist Jesus to their cause are an insult to Christians and should be rejected.

“We celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Palestinian messenger of love, justice and peace,” declared Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “His message resonates among all of those who are seeking justice, and among our people who have been the guardians of the holy sites for generations. It resonates in our prayers for our people in Gaza.”

Other local leaders joined the Christmas chorus, affirming that Jesus was a prophet to Palestine and the first Palestinian martyr.

What hypocrisy.

Each December the Open Doors organization releases its World Watch List of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians for religious reasons is most severe. This year it ranked the Palestinian Territories at No. 34, with the plight of the 40,000 Christians there worsening a little since 2013, when the region was ranked at No. 36.

Here is how Open Doors described conditions:

Anti-Christian violence has increased, mostly caused by Islamic extremists, although Muslim-background believers face pressure from family, too. The authorities fail to uphold the rights of individual Christians, causing some to flee to safer areas.

In Gaza, Christians are enticed into becoming Muslims, especially during Ramadan, with the offers of jobs, houses, wives and diplomas. Sometimes the approach is more violent.

In fact, Jesus was born and ministered in Judea. It was only 100 years after his death that the Roman authorities changed the name of the region to Palestine. And it was just in the 20th century that modern-day Palestinians adopted the name.

For some years the Palestinian leadership have been working to convince their people – and the world – that Jews have no particular history in the region. Their phoney attempts to claim Jesus as one of their own – without even noting that He was a Jewish rabbi – is aimed squarely at garnering sympathy from an international Christian audience.

But, until these leaders take decisive steps to halt the escalating persecution of the Christians in their midst, their proclamations should be rejected as mendacious hypocrisy.

Israel – The Only Mideast Country Where Christianity Is Growing

Last month I interviewed author Lela Gilbert about her new novel The Levine Affair: Angel’s Flight, which tells the story of a team of commandoes working to help persecuted Christians. I also reviewed the book, and said:

“The persecution of Christians around the globe, and particularly in the Muslim world, is an escalating terror. Yet too many Western Christians seem uninformed or, at best, aware but unwilling to do much.

“We need more educational resources, in all forms of media, that vividly portray the new reality. That is why novels like “The Levine Affair: Angel’s Flight” serve such an important role. This is a novel that the church needs to read.”

Lela lives in Israel, so I was able to ask her a few questions about a topic that interests me, the state of Christianity in that country.

Is Christianity growing in Israel? If so, why?

Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian community is increasing – and is able to increase. This is not the case in the West Bank, however, because, under the authority of the Palestinian Authority, abuse of Christians by Muslims is usually overlooked or even exacerbated when reported. I wrote about this in my book “Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner.”

Is it easy to be a Christian in Israel?

Israel is a Jewish State and Judaism is much more a part of the daily life of many of the people here than Christianity is in a so-called Christian nation like the US or other Western countries. Judaism and “being Jewish” are the primary identity of Israelis, and tradition as well as faith permeates much of daily life. I have mostly Jewish friends and have been accepted with affection by nearly every one. I let them know I’m a Christian and that I’m a real believer, but I don’t engage in “God-talk” unless the subject arises naturally or I’m asked about my beliefs, etc. I do feel I have far more in common with Jews than with today’s Western nouveau-atheists who are so antagonistic toward all religious faith.

Might Israel become a sanctuary for Mideast Christians who are trying to escape Islamist persecution? Is this happening already?

A few years ago, Israel took in some 600 Darfurian Muslims who fled Sudan; they also took in a number of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s. I am less inclined to think they will take in large numbers of Middle Eastern Christians seeking asylum. The population here is very sensitive to infiltrators, and a large number of refugees who are not Jewish and speak Arabic would likely stir up a huge amount of controversy. And, truthfully, many of the Middle Eastern countries who have refugees are exceptionally anti-semitic and anti-Jewish. They would, most likely, reject the idea of coming to Israel – even as a safe haven.

I believe increasing numbers of Christians are enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces. Do you know why this is happening?

Numerous Evangelical Christians – at least in the US – are very attached to Israel and the miraculous regathering of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland. They are also sensitive to the times, and many believe we have entered the “end times” or the biblical “last days.” Seeing the encroachment of so many vicious enemies has caused some Christians to review the biblical prophetic passages, to cast their lot with the Jews, and to fight alongside them. This is especially true of young men (and some women) from Jewish families who have become believers in Jesus as Messiah.

I have read about a new Israeli Christian political party, Bnei Brit HaHadasha (called, in English, Sons of the New Testament). Do you know anything about this?

Yes, there is a movement in the Nazareth area, led by a visionary Greek Orthodox priest named Father Gabriel Naddaf, that seeks to inspire young Arabic-speaking Christians to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces and to fight for the one country in the Middle East in which they can be full citizens – Christians who have full rights in a democracy. Most of these people are from ancient Christian churches that never converted to Islam and still speak Aramaic in their church liturgies. Rather than calling themselves “Arab Israelis” they identify as “Arabic-speaking Christian Israelis.” And yes, a political party has also been established.  I wrote about this phenomenon last year for Fox News.

Lela, thank you very much.

“The Levine Affair: Angel’s Flight” is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.