Church leaders denounce new Israeli law on Christian Arabs as divisive

(Photo: REUTERS / Ambmar Awad)Protesters wave flags during a demonstration against the desecration of headstones at a Muslim and Christian cemetery in Jaffa, just south of central Tel Aviv October 8, 2011. A few dozen Israelis and Palestinians turned out in a show of protest against the attacks and a local councilor blamed settlers. Jaffa is the ancient part of Tel Aviv, with a mixed Jewish and Arab population, including Christians and Muslims.

Christian groups in the Holy Land have denounced a new law that distinguishes between Muslim and Christian Arab citizens for the first time saying it divides communities.

A statement by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land said, "We, the heads of the Catholic Church in Israel, would like to clarify that it is not the right or the duty of the Israeli civil authorities to tell us who we are. In fact, most of our faithful in Israel are Palestinian Arabs.

"They are obviously Christians too. They are also citizens of the State of Israel. We do not see any contradiction in this definition of identity: Christian Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of the State of Israel."

World Council of Churches general secretary, Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, on Tuesday called on "Israeli authorities to reverse this law to stop an injustice against the Christian citizens of Israel."

The law was enacted February 23 by the Knesset, Israel's parliamentary body. It recognizes Muslim and Christian Arab communities as separate identities, giving them their own representation in an employment commission.

The law passed by a margin of 31 to 6.

Joining voices of the churches in Palestine and Israel, the World Council of Churches  expressed "grave concern" about the law.

"The new law passed by the Knesset favouring Christians is, to say the least, a deceitful political stunt by Likud-Beiteinu members aimed at sowing seeds of division among Christians and between Christians and Muslims," Palestinian Anglican priest, Rev. Naim Ateek, from the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre was quoted as saying by Independent Catholic News on March 4.


"For the last 65 years, the government of Israel has not shown favouritism or bias towards the Christian community of the land, so why now?"

Ateek said that during that during the 1948 Nakba at the time of Israel's independence, the Christians, like the Muslims, were dispossessed of their land and homes and forced out of their homeland.

"Furthermore, during the military rule imposed by Israel on all Palestinians who stayed inside the Israeli state (1948-1966), Israel did not show favoritism to Christians over Muslims."

He noted, "The problem for Israel in those days was not the Palestinians' religious affiliation but their Palestinian national identity."

The Times of Israel repored on February 25, "While the law is, in theory, meant to boost employment among Israel's minorities, Israeli Arab MKs have accused Levin of undermining Arab identity and creating a divide in the Israeli Arab community by advancing the the legal status of Christian Arabs in Israel, at the expense of Muslims."

The WCC's Tveit noted that top officials of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land have said that this new law "introduces a distinction between Christian and Muslim Palestinians and states that Christian Palestinians are Christians and not Palestinians."

He encouraged the WCC member churches, which represent more than 500 million Christians worldwide to "raise this issue with representatives of Israel and with their own governments."

Tveit said that this law establishes a "legislative distinction between the indigenous Palestinian Arab Christians and Palestinian Arab Muslims, both of whom are citizens of the State of Israel."

This distinction, he stressed, is an "unacceptable severing of entire communities from their cultural identity."

The world churches leader said, "The Knesset has transgressed all proper distinctions between state and religious authority by attempting to define the nature and character of Christian communities within Israel against their own will and self-understanding."

He also warned of the adverse implications of this law, noting that "rather than creating divisions among communities, the Knesset should pave the way for breaking down barriers that divide people according to ethnicity and religion."

The Catholic Church leaders have called this law part of a campaign which was aimed at drafting Christian Palestinians into the Israeli military.

"This campaign clearly has as its aim to divide Christians from their Muslim compatriots. However, it is equally dangerous because it will divide Christians among themselves even further," they said.

The WCC has long affirmed the right of religious communities to define themselves, condemning the manipulation of religious identity for political gains said Tveit.

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