Israeli Knesset aids Christians seeking to register as Arameans

A view of the church at the Arab Christian village of Kafr Bir'im in the upper part of the Galilee in northern Israel. (Photo: Hamad Almakt/Flash90)

Yesterday, January 18, the Israeli Knesset approved a bill that makes it easier for Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel to officially list their identity as Arameans.

“This is a historic decision that will bring blessing to Israel’s Christian population and Jewish population alike,” said Philos Fellow Shadi Khalloul, who presented the bill alongside Knesset Member Oded Forer. “This law recognizes us as descendants of early Christians and part of the original population of this region. Both Jews and Christians spoke Aramaic before the Islamic conquest, and both of our communities share common fathers and an Aramaic heritage.”

Arameans are a Semitic people, indigenous to the land of Israel since the time of Jesus Christ. Between 10,000 and 30,000 Aramean Christians live inside Israel. Khalloul founded the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association to revive and revitalize the Aramaic language, culture and tradition inside the Holy Land.

Although Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize the Aramean identity in 2014, until now it has been difficult and expensive for members of the Aramean community to register their identity as anything other than Arab – a distinctly different ethnic identity. This new Knesset law, “Legal Assistance for Those Seeking to Register as Arameans,” changes that.

“We welcome Israel’s decision to strengthen an ethnic minority that is being repressed everywhere else in the region,” said Robert Nicholson, Executive Director of The Philos Project. “The Aramean, or Syriac, people are scattered across Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. But only in Israel has their culture and language received the recognition they deserve. The Philos Project strongly supports this new law and looks forward to continued growth of the Aramean community and its participation in Israeli society.”

“The indigenous Christians of the land are returning to their original Aramaic Syriac roots,” Khalloul said.

“This new law is a testimony to the strength of the Jewish democracy, even though it is a nation surrounded by enemies that seek to destroy it,” Khalloul said on Wednesday. “Israel treats minorities as equal citizens, even helping to preserve their language, culture and heritage. Here in Israel, we Christians enjoy freedom while in Arab states our people are suffering from persecution.”

In the past, changing identity in Israel involved expensive legal procedures, court proceedings and document filings, which made it nearly impossible for members of the Aramean community to register appropriately.

“After years of bureaucratic tangle, Arameans are receiving further recognition of their nationality and its deep connection with Israel,” MK Forer said. “I have been exposed to the deep pride of this community. Their participation in Israeli society is worth our support. We should help them to strengthen this relationship.”

“Recognition of the Christian community in Israel as Arameans is a national project that will benefit us all and strengthen coexistence in the country,” Khalloul added. “While our population in Iraq, Syria and other Arab countries lack recognition, Israel is reviving and recognizing it. And more is still to come.”

This article originally appeared on Philos Project, January 19, 2017, and reposted with permission.