The Christian Cult That Lured Israeli Arabs to Rebuild the Galilee in Brazil

A large tract of land in Brazil, a furnished home and a new car – it was hard to resist what the two religious leaders from Kafr Yasif were offering Christian-Arab believers. But some of those who made the move from Israel later discovered that they had paid a very high financial and psychological price for that dream

The New Galilee community in Brazil.
The New Galilee community in Brazil.Credit: Courtesy of Adham Shaheen
Hilo Glazer
Yaser Wakid
Hilo Glazer
Yaser Wakid

Yasmin and Iyad met in southern Brazil, amid the folds of volcanic hills and slices of dense woodland, where a bit of paradise known as “New Galilee” nestles. She’s from Haifa; he’s from a small village in the “original” Galilee. Different life circumstances brought them to Brazil.

Yasmin was 21 when the leader of the Golden Valley Church, from the northern Galilee village of Abu Snan, suggested to her parents that they join an Israeli Christian messianic community that was being established in Brazil. She had just completed studies in cosmetics and taken initial steps in the profession, but the cleric and spiritual leader Fateen Yacob, and his brother, Milad, urged her parents to make the move.

“My mother had just been diagnosed with cancer and they told her that God is speaking with her, that if she follows them the cancer will pass,” Yasmin relates. “She started going to church, and as fate would have it she got well. They also told her that there would be a big war here, and shortly afterward the war of 2006 [the Second Lebanon war] took place, in which we in Haifa suffered very much. There was a series of coincidences, where everything they said would happen, happened.”

These portents persuaded Yasmin’s parents to follow the Yacob brothers to a community of Arab Christians from Israel that they had founded in the foothills near the town of Campo Alegre in the state of Santa Catarina, in southeastern Brazil. Her parents sold their home in Haifa and at the behest of the Yacob brothers paid a tithe of the proceeds from the sale to the new church, now called the Golden Mountain, evoking the verdant hills amid which it lies.

“Besides the warnings about catastrophes in Israel, they promised us economic prosperity, quiet, stability, work. An easier life,” Yasmin says.

The group’s leaders lured Iyad by promising him a large tract of land at an attractive price. “They detect what’s missing in your life – in my case it was land and a house – and they play on that,” says Iyad, 36, who moved to Brazil with his parents and his two siblings more than a decade ago.

The first discrepancy between expectations and reality loomed upon their arrival in the promised land, the South American version.

“The village was exotic – trees, water, everything was green, really beautiful – but the houses themselves were really junk,” Iyad recalls. “They were wooden houses that we had to rent [in the beginning]. To live in a permanent house was very expensive.”

The new immigrants became ensnared in the absorption process. Iyad, who had begun software-engineering studies in Israel, found himself working in construction. “Three-four years I worked for no pay, within the community, building houses for them, because I didn’t have a work permit. They succeeded in changing the direction of my life.”

He signed up for a course in Portuguese, but the leaders of the community tried to talk him out of it (Arabic is still the lingua franca there although today there are a few Portuguese speakers). “They told me that studies were a waste of time,” says Iyad. “They didn’t want me to grow.”

Yasmin, too, says that she was compelled to suppress her professional and social skills. “At first the other girls connected with me, and I started to teach them how to do nails, hair, makeup. And then the brothers came to me and said, ‘You are engaging in unlawful assembly.’ I was forbidden to use nail polish, to blow-dry my hair, even to wear pants. They told the girls that I was the devil and told my parents that I was a bad girl.”

Yasmin’s attempts at revolt heightened the tension with her parents, whose loyalty to the church and its leaders grew deeper. In the meantime, Iyad’s family was plunged into serious crisis when the father of the family, who from the outset had been skeptical about the promises of a new life in Brazil, returned to Israel alone.

Yasmin and Iyad, depressed by the loneliness, the difficulties of earning a living and nostalgia for home, found solace in each other’s arms. However, what they saw as a positive turning point for them was perceived differently by the community’s leaders. “They wanted to marry me off to a man 15 years older, who was associated with the core group of Fateen and Milad, but I refused,” Yasmin recalls. “At that time they were still gentle with me. The real mess started after I met Iyad.”

Iyad: “It didn’t work for them politically, so they said, ‘God does not want you to be with this girl.’ The battle began when they didn’t give us authorization to marry.”

The battle waged by Yasmin and Iyad, who would eventually leave the group and resettle in Israel, is one example of a series of flare-ups that have been rocking New Galilee. Disappointed believers now say they fell victim to systematic brainwashing and prolonged exploitation, as though they had been caught up in a cult. Others became restive when they discovered that the land they had purchased in the village did not actually belong to them. The confrontations deteriorated into house break-ins and senseless vandalism.

Fateen Yacob
Fateen and Milad Yacob.

Evangelical furor

Cleric Fateen Yacob had been an admired English teacher in Mar Elias Junior High in the town of Ibillin, east of Haifa, one of the Israeli Arab community’s highly regarded, elitist institutions. In 1995, he left the school and with a few of his followers from the Brethren Church in Kafr Yasif, established a new church, affiliated with the evangelical movement, in nearby Abu Snan, where he lived.

The residents of Kafr Yasif did not take kindly to the religious schism and sought to impose sanctions on those who broke away. These events stirred a furor among the greater evangelical community in Israel, which currently numbers about 5,000 adherents, almost all of whom live in the north.

From the outset, the church created by Fateen, whose believers called him “the brain,” and his brother, Milad, “the executor,” took a dogmatic, rigid line.

“It was forbidden to miss prayer or to attend weddings where music was played, and you could wear only what the priest permitted,” recalls Diana, a former adherent. “Jewelry, for example, was prohibited. Not even a crucifix pendant.”

The believers, even today, describe the institution as a “primitive church,” a reference to the early Christian church as it existed in its original form, in the sense that it aspires to cling quite literally to the words of the Scriptures.

The combination of Fateen’s charismatic personality and the strict rules he introduced generated a certain unease among Israel’s traditional evangelicals. They viewed the group as an alien element. Still, as long as they practiced their faith in the structure where the Yacob brothers lived, they were left alone. In fact, Fateen and Milad, seeking to draw closer to the evangelical mainstream, asked their Baptist colleagues to recognize their religious authority. The Baptists acceded, and in an accelerated process the Yacob brothers were ordained as religious leaders. A few months later, Fateen experienced a divine revelation in which he was called upon to leave the Galilee, where calamity was imminent, and to reestablish it in Brazil.

We invested a great deal of money in building houses, but we can’t sell them. We want to return to Israel, but the moment we leave we lose everything.

Shibel Shaheen

In short order the vision was transformed into a plan of action, and in 2006, the first five families settled on virgin land in the state of Santa Catarina, an area populated largely by settlers of European descent, among them Germans who immigrated after World War II. The New Galilee community numbers about 100 members, who constitute a diverse human mix: engineers, people who worked in low-level jobs in industry and even a physician (who recently left), together with a significant number of people who in Israel barely eked out a living, some of whom had repeated run-ins with the law.

The believers’ homes are scattered across 150 dunams (37.5 acres) of land. The members of the founding group originally purchased the land together when they arrived in Brazil. The families that migrated in the second wave bought property directly (at 10,000 shekels per dunam, currently $2,925) from the village committee that oversees life in New Galilee, which was supposed to ensure their economic future as they had sold their assets in Israel.

However, the deeded transfer of the land was never enshrined in a formal contract. According to Gabi Siriani who went to Brazil briefly to form an impression of the group, quarreled with the Yacob brothers and has since been considered an extreme militant in opposition to them, “The sale was executed verbally. They [the Yacob brothers] told the people, ‘I am your priest, if you believed in me until now, you need to go on believing.’ People had sold everything they owned, so they had no choice but to accept.”

“They kept putting off the contract,” Shibel Shaheen, a 14-year resident of New Galilee, confirms in a Whatsapp phone call. “In practice, they own the land and are not willing to give it up. We invested a great deal of money in building houses, but we can’t sell them. We want to return to Israel, but the moment we leave we lose everything.”

His brother, Adham Shaheen, adds with bitterness, “I don’t have a deed to the two dunams of land in the village where I and my children live. They pulled a fast one on me in the name of Jesus and fraternity.”

For their part, Iyad and Yasmin, who first left and afterward tried to cash in on their land, discovered that it was already occupied.

Iyad: “When we got to Israel, we found out that it’s not really ours, that the money was gone. We even found out that they tried twice to sell the land we lived on, naturally without informing us.”

Indeed, dispossession is anchored in the village’s laws, as transpires from a recent WhatsApp message that is attributed to Milad Yacob, the current leader of the community.

A meeting of New Galilee congregants.
A meeting of New Galilee congregants. Credit: The New Galilee community

“To all the dear friends in New Galilee,” the message stated. “Everyone who was in the village and left the group, meaning they betrayed it, loses all ties of partnership… And I recommend, as God’s commandment, boycotting and shunning them. In the present situation, they have no claim to ownership over any house or land within the village, and we must lock the gate and deny them entry.”

The village committee says they are not expropriating anyone’s land, only breaking the ties with those who have turned away from the group’s values.

‘Kingdom and subjects’

Be that as it may, both the leavers and those who are remaining maintain that the expropriation of the land is only a symptom of an attempt to subjugate them in all spheres of life.

“It’s the behavior of a kingdom and subjects,” says a resident who preferred to remain anonymous. “The project was born as a spiritual idea, but today we realize we were taken in. The church is not only a church. A state with a constitution was founded here, based on divide and rule. If someone shows resistance, everyone is incited against them. The reality is that people here are suffering under slavery, but not everyone understands what is going on here.”

The village committee does not deny the existence of a community constitution. Their explanation is that it is only intended to regularize a number of basic principles in the life of the village, such as a ban on alcohol and drugs and on smoking of any kind. The constitution is based on the New Testament, and those empowered to revise it are the shepherd of the flock and the committee, which is staffed by seven people who are occasionally changed and usually include a few of the founders. There is nothing secret about all this, New Galilee states, adding that the village’s institutions resemble those of kibbutzim.

Disillusioned believers say that their emigration was preceded by a process of being alienated from their families who decided to stay in Israel. According to Siriani, “Fateen and Milad created divisions in the families in order to bring about emotional and social distancing from the Israeli milieu. Suddenly people aren’t talking to their relatives and neighbors. In that way, the move to Brazil became the end of a process. It’s easy to lure someone after you’ve cut him off from his natural surroundings. It also works in reverse: People now in Brazil who want to leave, feel that they have nowhere to return to.”

If someone shows resistance, everyone is incited against them. The reality is that people here are suffering under slavery, but not everyone understands what is going on here.

A resident

Everyone who was interviewed for this article noted that the Yacob brothers established their control by manipulating the women of the village in order to get them to influence the men and help eradicate pockets of resistance. According to Iyad, “They persuade the wife that if she doesn’t support them she will lose her husband and the children.”

In the case of Diana, Iyad’s mother, her attempts to reconcile with her husband were unsuccessful, and during most of the time he remained in Brazil the couple lived apart. “After my husband cracked and returned to Israel, I was supposed to go regularly to see Fateen and Milad and ask them what I should do, and they guided me according to the Scriptures. In return I was obligated to prepare meals for them, to serve them. They would sit in their homes like emperors, and the women would compete over who would make them the fanciest breakfast.”

Adham Shaheen, one of the more colorful personalities residing today in the village – “I never believed in anything,” he declares, and says he immigrated to Brazil only to give his children a better future – tells an unusual story that, he says, illustrates how the village leaders allegedly misuse the women who yield to their authority.

After Shaheen rebelled against the committee and got into a sharp clash with Milad, sanctions were imposed on him that deteriorated into a break-in to his home and destruction of his property, a few weeks ago.

“Women carried out the operation against me – and that’s not by chance,” Shaheen says. “Violence against women is a serious offense in Brazil, and they knew that if I were to react impulsively and attack a woman, they could get rid of me once and for all.”

The committee states that it has no connection to the episode, hints that the break-in was fabricated and adds that it intends to take legal action against Shaheen, whom it identifies as the most hostile figure in the village.

The vandalizing of Shaheen’s home stirred a furor in the village, and was even reported on Arabic news sites in Israel. He, for his part, is not moved by having become the bane of New Galilee. “Milad incited everyone against me, for a long time no one spoke to me, not even my relatives in the village.”

He continues to protest what he sees as the exploitation of the community’s members, using creative methods. “I put the TV set on the porch at full volume and watch Muslim prayers with readings of verses from the Koran,” he relates. “I can’t be silent any longer about how life in the community has become dependent on Milad’s moods.”

The New Galilee community in Brazil.
The New Galilee community in Brazil.Credit: The New Galilee community

But it’s not only marginal figures who are on a collision course with the leadership and find themselves ostracized. After Amir, one of the first immigrants to Brazil and a confidant of Fateen Yacob, expressed criticism of Milad, a short time later, he was forced to shut down his restaurant in the village, supposedly because it did not “serve God’s will.” He was effectively banned from the life of the community and is boycotted even in the church. (Amir refused to have anything to do with this article, for fear it would further exacerbate relations with the village committee.)

To ensure that such cases do not recur, the leadership is investing a large effort in establishing community cohesion, in part by becoming involved in matchmaking among its members. A case in point is Adham Shaheen, whose daughter is married to Fateen’s son and whose son is married to Milad’s daughter. The critical voices in the village believe that ties like these are intended to neutralize in advance any possible future rebelliousness or thoughts about leaving by residents who might be prone to such notions. Proof of this is the priests’ resistance to the marriage of Yasmin and Iyad, which took place in a civil ceremony in Brazil a few years ago. Both of them had been marked as weak links in terms of communal loyalty. According to Yasmin, “If I had married someone else, I would never have been able to leave.”

Siriani, who visited Brazil 10 years ago when he was 26 for the first – and only – time, says that as soon as he arrived in the village he was introduced to his intended fiancée, a 15-year-old girl. “She was chosen then in order to marry me and stay with me in the community,” he says. “Obviously I refused. I got out of there after a month.”

Economically, the expectation that believers would donate a 10th of their money to the church conflicted with the usual voluntary nature of that custom.

“The moment my father got to Brazil, an old friend from the committee was assigned to him to help him arrange things with the authorities and took him to the bank to help him open an account, and that way they knew exactly how much we had,” Yasmin says. “A few hours later they held a meeting where they told my father that he had to pay such-and-such.”

The demand for a tithe doesn’t end with the integration process. A monthly amount of money via a “tithe coupon” is donated by all residents. According to Iyad, who in his first years in the village subsisted on an allowance from his father, “Even if you have [only] 100 shekels in your pocket, you have to pay them 10 shekels. They make you feel you have to give them the last shekel, otherwise God will not be with you.”

“One time I received a relatively large sum of money for a private job I did,” Iyad continues. “Fateen knew about it, and in one of our arguments he said, ‘What did the church get from the 10,000 shekels you made? That’s why your life here isn’t working out.’”

It’s easy to lure someone after you’ve cut him off from his natural surroundings. It also works in reverse: People now in Brazil who want to leave, feel that they have nowhere to return to.

Gabi Siriani

Unmissable opportunity

Milad Yacob succeeded his brother, who died last year under unknown circumstances, aged 62. Accounts by his former followers – to the effect that his coffin was sneaked into the church and remained shut during the funeral ceremony, as opposed to the usual custom – have sparked unverifiable conspiracy theories in the village about the true fate of the venerated leader, and some are convinced that he is not dead. In any event, when Fateen left the stage, the transfer of power to his brother was natural.

Like his late brother, Milad has a degree in English literature – in Israel he worked as a teacher and translator. However, while Fateen projected a pleasant demeanor and his sources of authority were spiritual and intellectual (his devotees addressed him as “doctor” and noted that he had obtained a doctorate in Christian theology from an American university), Milad’s authority is imposed far more forcefully.

“Every decision that Pastor Milad makes is supported and approved by God,” states a recent WhatsApp message disseminated to the community. “Everyone who does not write amen and prove his unconditional support with his conscience, does not belong with us.”

In addition to his religious and political activity, Milad has turned out to be a smooth real estate broker. Posts on New Galilee’s (Arabic) Facebook page and on Milad’s page occasionally offer land for sale in southern Brazil. “Opportunity not to be missed!” states an ad disseminated recently in the New Galilee community to attract new settlers. “Land of 5,000 sq. meters, furnished house, new car, plane ticket to Brazil, Brazilian residency and citizenship, course in Portuguese – and all for just $100,000.”

These marketing efforts are perhaps aimed at offsetting the slight trend of negative migration of recent years. Presently there are 40 houses in the village, along with a church and a bakery that is considered a local regional attraction thanks to the sfiha (flatbread cooked with a minced meat topping) and the confections available there. The local restaurant closed down, as noted earlier, after the owner, Amir, fell out of favor with Milad.

In conversations with members of the community, Amir terms the new leader a “dictator” and is outraged by the fact that under cover of the distance from Israel and the transformation of the group into the center of life of the believers, Milad sets the members against one another. And in his case, even his siblings are alienated from him.

Overall, the demand for blind obedience and the threats to resisters have become an integral part of routine. “I will not allow any conflictual, foreign or bad soul [to be] in this village, no matter what the price. Anyone who does not agree with my doctrine, I will attack him with all my might and fight him to the death,” a recent message in the community’s WhatsApp group stated, in Yacob’s name. And it added: “We are in a cruel spiritual war, and everyone is required to declare where they stand – with me or against me.”

New Galilee’s Milad Yacob. From the outset, the church he created with his brother Fateen took a dogmatic, rigid line.
New Galilee’s Milad Yacob. From the outset, the church he created with his brother Fateen took a dogmatic, rigid line.Credit: The New Galilee community

The threats are also aimed at those who are marked as enemies of the village in Israel. Most of the flak is taken by a Magistrate’s Court judge in Acre, Jameel Nasser, who is known to be a harsh critic of the project, although his sister lives in the village and is close to the founders. Anonymous Facebook accounts echo the allegation that the judge is responsible for Fateen Yacob’s death, no less, along with vaguer abuse, such as, “He thinks that faith is commerce and manipulation, and has succeeded in deceiving many.”

Recently, Milad also hinted that he would not hesitate to act, through his family ties, to fire another person in Israel who has been critical of his rule in various forums. “This is the first time I’ve seen a pastor use a method of threats,” the person who was warned said in response.

Milad’s associates reject the allegations against him and make it clear that the tension in the village is not the result of a change of leadership and does not reflect broader ferment. They claim the source can be found in families who immigrated for economic motives and whose material yearnings remained unsatisfied. According to this explanation, these people are trying to stigmatize the rest of the village, residents who are there with the purpose of upholding God’s message of love, peace and tranquility.

‘For them I am the devil’

“I was told to stand in the church and apologize to all the people for things that supposedly entered into me and that I couldn’t see,” Yasmin relates. “I didn’t agree. I know who I am inside.”

Her refusal to undergo public humiliation deepened her rift with the community, and at a particularly painful time. “I had two miscarriages. They started telling me, ‘It’s a punishment from God, because you hate us.’ When I got back from the hospital, after a fifth-month miscarriage, no one came to visit me. Not even my mother. She was told that she must stay away from me. I cried there night after night. After I recovered we decided to leave.”

An additional pregnancy delayed the departure. This time Yasmin gave birth to a healthy baby, but her and Iyad’s happiness was overshadowed by the boycott imposed on her by the community, including by her close family. The date for the return to Israel of Yasmin, Iyad and their baby drew near, along with heightened hidden pressures and threats, to the effect that they should mend their ways and stay put.

“Before we left for the airport, my aunt sent me a message: ‘Aren’t you afraid your plane will crash?’” Yasmin says. “And another woman wrote, ‘Aren’t you afraid that God will take your child as happened to you in your previous pregnancies?’”

The family returned to Israel safely three years ago and moved into a spacious house in Iyad’s childhood village. He began a new career as a chef, and she is for the first time realizing her skills and working in a beauty parlor. The trees in the yard, heavy with fruit, and the cage of raucous parrots outside the entrance of the house are a reminder of their earlier life in an exotic country, even though Yasmin has no good memories from there and says the only people she misses are her parents.

“They threatened my father, so he’s not permitted to talk to me or to make contact with anyone else in Israel. I’m afraid they will do something to him, so I don’t even try to call. My mother actually blocks me. If I could talk to them, I would try to persuade them that they are being deceived, that they are drowning there. But for them I am the devil.”

Response

Milad Yacob, the leader of the New Galilee community, stated in response to a series of questions from Haaretz: “Everyone who went with us to Brazil did so based on faith and a personal decision. We did not persuade or try to pressure anyone. Those who oppose us today came to Brazil in the wake of illegal behavior in Israel.”

Referring to the allegation of dispossession of land, he stated: “When we bought the land, it was registered only in the name of those who paid. To change that today, the requirement is to pay a registry fee, but that is not done by means of the leadership. Overall, the members of the founding group do not own land in New Galilee. I am the leader and the shepherd of the community, and even the house I live in is not registered in my name. Adham and Shibel Shaheen achieved ownership of their land by means of force and threats.”

Referring to allegations of the leadership’s control over inhabitants’ lives, he stated: “We do not intervene in the personal lives of the members of the community. The girl from Haifa got into a quarrel with a family that has no connections with us. These are unfounded slanders. The truth is that every person in the community is free to live his life, to dress and to study as he pleases. We do not demand blind obedience, but we demand that the guidance of the conceivers of the idea, who are the shepherds of the community, be heeded.”

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