Arab Christian soldiers in Israel The Jerusalem Initiative
Conflict

Meet a Jew and a Christian Making Peace in the Middle East

“Here we are free to live our lives openly as Christians who believe in Jesus.”

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Almost every day we hear about another Arab country making peace with Israel, or Islamic nation opening diplomatic relationships with Israel, or Muslims openly declaring a change of heart towards the Jewish Nation.

A peace train has left the station and Arabs not wanting to miss it are jumping on board. These are significant developments in light of Scripture, and the two men I had the honor of meeting with this week, Elias and Amit, live right here in the middle of the conflict and are changing hearts on the ground with an initiative that could prove to be one of the most important in decades when it comes to promoting peace in Israel.

Elias Zarena and Amit Barak, a Christian and a Jew, respectively, run a non-profit called The Jerusalemite Initiative where they are breaking down walls of hatred, and cleaning up the anti-Israel propaganda from hearts and minds. I’ll let them tell their story.

 

Elias Zarena is an Aramean Christian from Jerusalem

We are local Arabic-speakers which makes it very difficult for us to integrate into Israeli society. Arabic is not even our mother tongue. When Islam conquered Israel, our people were forced to learn Arabic, in the same way we were forced to become Muslims. Even during 500 years of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Arabic was imposed on us, and our native tongue, Aramaic, was lost.

I just got back for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Recruitment Base where we are working together with them to see how the army can do a better job of integrating local Arabic-speaking Christians.

Having grown up here, I know what it means to be a Christian in Jerusalem. I do not want my children and the next generation to go through what we did. The Muslims pressure us to fight against Israel. Even the historical Greek and Catholic Churches stand against us for encouraging integration into Israel because they are “in bed” with the Palestinian leadership. They would rather have war with Israel than settle things and make peace with the Jewish nation. They are only interested in keeping the conflict alive, believing they will get more concessions and land from Israel.

Our people are especially peeved when I tell them that we are encouraging young Arab Christians to serve in the IDF. “They will kill themselves, their own people and members of their own family,” they shout. “How can an Arab fight in the Israeli army.”

This is utter foolishness, I tell them. What is the difference if a Palestinian serves in the Jordanian army or police force? Will he not also need to fight against other Arabs when necessary? There is so much evil propaganda about Israel and the army that our people cannot even imagine how humane the IDF is. People have built up walls that need to be broken down. That’s why I have to speak out.

Elias addressing a group of young Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel.

Amit Barak is a Jew who lives in a settlement in Gush Etzion, the heart of the biblical settler movement

We asked the local Arabic-speaking Christians in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the surrounding villages what they needed most, and their first response was Hebrew. “We need to learn Hebrew so that we can get jobs and integrate into Israeli society,” they told us.

So we started a Hebrew studies program and we now have 4 courses running on Zoom with 70 students. We have support for this from Beit Begin, the Jerusalem Municipality, and Norwegian Christians. We also give lectures on Jerusalem’s history and the heritage of the Jewish and Christian people in Israel.

 

Elias:

It would be a pity if the next generation will continue to only speak Arabic. The native tongue of this land is Hebrew! And next to the Jews, we were among the first in this land to believe in Jesus. This is our identity. Jesus was a Jew and went to the synagogue. We are a part of this land and want to live together with the Jewish people. Open the Old and New Testaments, I tell my people. You see this is Israel and it’s all about the Jews!

The Palestinians fight over the Temple Mount, it’s a big lie and the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount is a deceptive ploy. This mountain is spoken about in the Bible and it is part of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.

But the Palestinians hide this from our people. They rewrite history even in our children’s textbooks. We are trying to restore our Christian history and culture here in Israel, our homeland.

We also connect with Arabic-speaking Christians around the Middle East to encourage them to support Israel. Young people from Iraq, Syria and in Europe are especially open to Israel and would like very much to visit here someday.

Elias and Amit presented their unique and refreshing message to Israelis via Zoom in December.

Amit:

We also help local Christians with practical assistance like dealing with Israeli bureaucracy, preparing a CV and finding a job.

Slowly but surely, they are beginning to volunteer for service in the army. But they do this as quietly as possible. When they go home on the weekends or on furlough, they change out of their uniforms before entering their village out of fear for their lives.

The army is finally learning how to absorb these brave Christians to defend Israel. At first they were sending them to Bedouin units, but they found it very difficult to integrate there and many quit. Now they are placing them in Home Front Command where they serve together with Jews and Arabs in the center of Israel. During the Corona crisis this is an especially important area to serve.

For most of them, they want to serve in the army and become a part of Israeli society for financial and ideological reasons.

Elias (left) and Amit (right) at a food distribution center.

Elias:

I want our people to understand that Israel is a Garden of Eden. Here we live freely without fear, we are respected and considered an integral part of society as Christians. The Jews do not try to convert us like the Muslims. Here we are free to live our lives openly as Christians who believe in Jesus. In many Islamic countries, if we want to be Christian we are forced to pay special taxes for refusing to convert to Islam.

Over the past 10 years, radical Islam and groups like ISIS have terrorized our people around the Middle East, burnt churches and murdered innocent Christian women and children.

We want to live here in Israel and protect our homeland, Eretz Yisrael, a home for Jews, Christians and Muslims. We want to build our country together, not just criticize and blame one another for its problems. We can’t just take and take all the time, we also need to give and support Israel.

Elias with his soldiers.

Amit:

You would think that there would be support for our work from the “peace-promoting” left-wing in Israel. But the opposite is true. The Left continues to feed the anger and criticism of Israel among the Christian Arabs and Arameans. They are opposed to helping them integrate into Israel society because then they would stop supporting the Left’s agenda to bring down the government with boycotts and anti-Israel propaganda.

Historically, it has always been the right-wing leaders that has made peace between Israel and the Arab countries. It is the Right that wants peace, not the Left.

The Left are not in favor of encouraging Aramean or Christian identity. They believe in an ideology whereby everyone is treated equal, and emphasizing a unique Christian heritage and traditions undermines some universal, global democratic fantasy they believe will bring world peace.

We used to work with Father Gabriel Naddaf in Nazareth in the north of the country where it was easier to encourage Arab Christians to serve in the IDF. But even there, Father Naddaf was beaten multiple times and had firebombs thrown at his home and car. When Arab Christians and Muslims threatened his children, he had enough and quit.

In 2012, Elias and I took over the work, but not in “Christian Nazareth” as it’s called, but in East Jerusalem, Beit Sahur, Bethlehem, and the surrounding villages where Palestinian nationalism and Islamic culture dominates. The work is much slower here, and more dangerous.

 

Elias:

If no one speaks up and takes down these walls of lies, what will happen to the next generation? Can I just leave things as they are so that our children will continue with the anger and hatred between Palestinians and Israelis? As Christians we have a responsibility to stand up for the truth and be peacemakers.

 

You can meet Elias and Amit right here on Israel Today’s Live Members Events. We will be hosting them in our Jerusalem offices as soon as the lockdown allows free travel. We will let you know.

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