Text size

Fouad Farah is the head of the Orthodox Christian community in Israel. From his home in Nazareth he is increasingly concerned about the Christian communities in the north.

The violence at Maghar, which erupted on February 10, may have been surprising for many Jews in Israel, but it did not astonish those following relations between the different ethnic and religious communities in the north. While it is not politically correct to talk about the tensions, it is difficult to hide the burned homes, businesses and cars. Many Christians are concerned that this is only the beginning; tension exists in other villages and towns with Christian minorities.

Not surprisingly, Christians are reluctant to point fingers openly at other groups. "You will not write this," they tell you. Anonymously many express loathing for their neighbors, whether this is in Maghar or other towns.

The neighbors, for their part, are also full of complaints for the Christians next door: "They are manipulative, well organized and they are ready to stab you in the back," they charge in Maghar.

The Christians say they feel threatened and unprotected. They know that they cannot rally friends or family members from nearby villages to come to their assistance. At the end of the day, they will be on the losing side - they are a minority within a minority.

"I never heard that Jews or Muslims are attacked," Farah says. "Why do they specifically target Christians?"

Dr. Hatem Khoury from Haifa, who served for many years as deputy director general of the municipality, explains that the Christians are the weak link in all power struggles. This is both in cases when they are confronted with violence and also politically.

"We are a minority among the overall population, a minority among the Arabs and divided among ourselves, unfortunately, to different denominations," he explains in an interview from his home in Haifa.

The numbers speak for themselves and the year 2005 is the key to understanding the situation of the Christians. The number of Christians in the country is equal to that of the Druze, 117,000. They constitute 8.6 percent of the Arab population in Israel, a significant decline since 1948 when they formed 20 percent of that community. This trend is unlikely to change in the coming years.

There are two main reasons for this decline: a low birth rate and migration abroad. According to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, Christian women in Israel have the lowest number of births, 2.3, compared to 2.7 of Jewish women, and 4.5 among Muslim women. If we add to this the fact that the number of single Christian women above the age of 35 in Israel is three times higher than that of Muslim or Druze women, it is not difficult to conclude that the Christian community is in a crisis.

In 1983, Dr. Khoury visited Toronto and met with the head of the Greek Catholic community in the city, who in the 1970s was the head of the community in Haifa. When visiting the local church, he was surprised to find familiar faces.

"I felt like I was in the community church in Haifa. I knew most of the people, and the priest was the one who had baptized my children," he says with a sad smile.

Upon his return he carried out a study on the migration of the Arab population from Haifa. The 1989 study shows that the Muslims essentially do not migrate, but 28 percent of Christians plan on leaving the country. The main reason for their drive abroad is professional.

An interesting fact crops up from the data offered by the CBS in on Christians in Israel December 2004: they have the highest success rate in completing bagrut (matriculation) diplomas. In 2003, 64 percent of Christian pupils were entitled to a bagrut, compared with 57 percent among Jews and 49 percent among Muslim and Druze.

Still, as a minority, one of the few jobs available to them is in teaching, which Dr. Khoury says "creates a situation in which the schools are full of frustrated teachers aspiring for better jobs."

What may not be surprising is that the number of Christian leaders among the Arab population is higher than their weight in the population would suggest. Two out of 11 MKs are Christians, two of the editors of Arab newspapers are also Christian, they head NGOs and have strong membership in the human rights group Adalah. The new director general at the Interior Ministry is also a Christian.

The key to their success lies in education but it does not translate to security. A new group has been formed in Haifa, called "The Christian Home," which seeks to create a representative body that will act both in Israel and abroad. A minority among those setting up the new group even called for Christians to enlist in the IDF, an idea that is unpopular among the community's leadership.