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"A minefield" - this is how a Christian politician described the relations between the Arab Christian minority in Israel and the larger Muslim minority. Anyone wishing to deal with the issue, will hit some kind of mine.

A question, for example, came up at meetings in Haifa aimed at organizing an Arab-Christian task force to protect Christian-Arab rights in Israel. The question was whether to call the new group "the Arab-Christian Organization" or "the Christian Organization." Seemingly a simple question, it is actually intimately tied to questions of Christian identity. Those who support adding "Arab" to the title stress the sense of belonging to the fabric of Arab life in Israel, and not Christian separateness.

For some, a separatist Christian organization means destroying their entire life's work. It is not only a matter of bringing denominational tensions with political allies to the surface; they are also convinced there can be no separate Christian political future that is detached from the path of Arab nationalism. For this reason, most of the elected Christian officials refused to be interviewed for this story. Some perceive putting the issue on the public agenda as a colonialist act, seeking to create a division between Christians and other religious communities.

Two of Israel's members of parliament are Christian, MKs Azmi Bishara (Balad) and Issam Makhoul (Hadash-Taal). Neither views himself as a representative of the Christian community, but sees organizing on a religious basis as harmful to the general struggle of the Arab public within Israeli society. The majority of voters in the party Bishara leads are Muslim. "The party I head has no religious basis, although I come from a Catholic home," Bishara says. "One cannot choose a path based on the ethnic group into which one was born."

MK Makhoul has a similar view of the matter: "Christians should be proud that some of the MKs and senior leadership of the Arab public come from the community, even if they are not its representatives." In Makhoul's opinion their political representation should not be based on ethnic-denominational representation.

Christians are a minority throughout the Arab world, and this has caused them to join forces with Arab Muslims, to achieve political gains, on the basis of Arab nationalism or secular ideology. This can only happen in secular organizations, because the Islamic Movement will not accept Christian members.

With the rise of religious forces in the Arab world in the 1970s, Christians were excluded from the Islamic Movement, and were left to act only within the secular organizations.

The 1990s in Israel saw the rise of many Arab civic organizations, most of which are led by Christians. Jaffer Farah, director of Mossawa - the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, says his public activity is not related to the fact that he was born Christian. "I am part of Arab society. If conflict exists, it must be dealt with, whatever one's religion may be," Farah said yesterday.

Sabri Jaris, one of the Palestine Liberation Organization's leading intellectuals, has spent a lifetime working for the Palestinian national cause. Yesterday he said he rejected any group organizing on a religious basis. Lutfi Mashur, publisher of Nazareth-based Arabic weekly al-Sinara says that the recent violence between Druze and Christians in the village of Maghar must be dissociated from religious factors. "There were law-breakers, and, on the other hand, the Arab public at large," he said.

Others also view the group in Haifa as damaging Palestinian interests. Zuheir Andreus, editor of Arabic newspaper Kul al-Arab attacked the organizers in today's editorial, quoting George Habash, founder of the the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine: "I combine my Arab nationality, my Christianity, my Muslim culture and Marxism."