Christianity and Religious Freedom of Minorities in Israel

Regarding religion, Israeli law generally follows the Ottoman Millet system, which it inherited, adopted and loosely adapted. Five religions, all belonging to the Abrahamic family of belief systems are officially recognized: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Druze and Bahá’í faiths.

Amid cries of Israel being an Apartheid state, not treating its minorities with equality and chasing Christians away, the opposite is true. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign affairs has a very comprehensive understanding of its Christian citizens, who are a minority within a minority. Most Christian citizens living permanently in Israel are Arabs who were born to citizens of pre- or post-State Israel and at the time of this writing, they make up 2.1% of the population.

Christianity has a long history in the Land of Israel. The ruins of the oldest church building in the world were found in Megiddo; dating back to the 3rd century. Israeli law recognizes official church bodies that are responsible for registering marriages, births and deaths for their congregants. These are the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic (Latin rite), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian Catholic, Syriac Catholic, Chaldean, Melkite (Greek Catholic), Ethiopian Orthodox, Maronite Catholics and Syriac Orthodox churches, as well as the Arab Anglican and Lutheran denominations.

For the last 20 years, every Thursday to Saturday in the month of December, a few hundred thousand visitors flock to the Wadi Nisnas holiday market. Also known as the Holiday of Holidays Festival, it is held in Wadi Nisnas; the mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Haifa. This market serves to act as an inter-faith endeavor combining the three monotheistic holidays that generally occur around that time of the year – Hanukkah of Judaism, Eid Al-Adha of Islam and Christmas of Christianity.

In Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem, as well as in Nazareth and Jaffa, Christmas trees are lit with official ceremonies and celebrations and in addition, many hotels throughout the country that cater to foreign tourists have Christmas trees in their lobbies to add to the traditional Christian festivities. Carol services held in many churches are well attended by congregants and visitors – especially Jewish Israeli guests.

The Israeli Defense Force even hosted a Christmas party for Arab Christian soldiers.

Unfortunately, the recent wave of terror affected the once Jewish, then Christian and now Muslim cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah that are under Palestinian control, and hampered their celebrations this past December.

At the end of April, there was the annual Fire Ceremony held in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where according to tradition, the mysterious flame spontaneously appears from the tomb on Holy Saturday. Thousands of Christians attended and Israeli security was tight because of the aforementioned terror.

For many decades, another Christian event in Israel has taken place with much pomp and circumstance, and this year was no different. Monday May 2 marked the annual Easter parade of the Orthodox Christian-Arab Scouts in Israel. It took place along Yefet Street in Jaffa with the blessing of the municipality, who allows for roads in the area to be cordoned off for a few hours for the duration of the festivities. With an appearance made by the mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and other dignitaries; hundreds of men, women and children participated in the parade including representatives of the various churches from Israel and the greater Christian community. With lots of happy faces of participants and onlookers alike; flags of the scout troops were waved as well as those of the Greek-Orthodox church and the flag of the patron saint – St. George. Talented youths played their wind and percussion instruments as they made their way through the neighborhood where the whole Christian community joined in. The atmosphere was joyful and the colors were vibrant. The tunes might sound familiar even to tourists as these Scout members in their various smart uniforms played a variety of pop music, parade marches and well-known Arab melodies. Everyone dresses in their best for the occasion. Photos from an Arabic news site can be seen here.

Unlike other parts of the region, the Christian community in Israel is growing and thriving.