MK Basel Ghattas (Balad) has asked Pope Francis to intervene with the Israeli government on the issue of recruiting Arab Christians into the Israel Defense Forces.
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Ghattas made his request in a letter to the Vatican’s envoy to Israel, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto. Ghattas said the timing of his request was linked to the pope’s two-day visit to Israel scheduled to begin on May 24.
In his letter, Ghattas criticized efforts to increase the number of Christians in the IDF while Muslim Arabs are exempted.
He called this “part of a divide-and-conquer policy” and a plank in the “Israelization of the Arab minority” that will erode Christians’ identity in the country. He asked the pope to intervene “to end the divide-and-conquer policy applied by Israel to harm the Palestinian minority inside Israel.”
Ghattas also raised the issue of two Christian villages, Ikrit and Biram, whose residents were evacuated during the 1947-49 War of Independence. The residents were promised they could return when the security situation improved, but they have still not been allowed back in.
Ghattas said generations of Israeli governments had refused to honor their promise and were ignoring a 1951 Supreme Court ruling calling for the residents’ return.
In the talk with Lazzarotto, it was agreed that another meeting with more Arab MKs would address a broad range of issues relating to Israeli Arabs. Ghattas asked if the pope could lengthen his stay even by a few hours so he could visit the Galilee, particularly Nazareth.
The issue of Arab Christians in the IDF has made headlines since it emerged that efforts encouraging Christians to enlist have the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and deputy ministers Ofir Akunis and Danny Danon. Christian enlistment, though small in scope, is on the rise and has generated controversy in the Arab community.
Sources close to the Vatican say Israeli Christians have been trying to get the Holy See to take a stand on the issue and not consider it an internal matter.