The radicalization of Jews and Muslims is squeezing Christians out of the Holy Land—and ISIS’s reported arrival in the biblical city is just the latest sign.
At the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, on the site where it is believed the Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she would carry the next messiah, Jesus Christ, both Christian and Muslim residents of the city are reflecting on recent news that the so-called Islamic State has come into their midst.
This month, the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, announced the arrest of five Nazareth residents who, it said, had declared their allegiance to ISIS. They had been training with arms, meeting covertly, and preparing for a jihad on “infidels,” the agency said.
Over the past few years, 40 Arab Israelis, often from marginalized communities, reportedly have crossed the border in order to join the fight in Syria and Iraq.
In the city revered as the hometown of Jesus, where the young messiah was believed to have spent his childhood roaming the hills around what was then a bucolic Galilean village, current regional and domestic turmoil has modern-day Christian residents facing existential questions. They, after all, might well have been the “infidels” the ISIS recruits wanted to kill.
So the holidays this year were somber and tense, as the Christian community deliberated about its place in a country that has seen extremism rise among both their Muslim and Jewish neighbors, as both have become increasingly vocal in their protests against Christians in the Holy Land.
Inevitably, some Nazareth residents suspect a conspiracy to disrupt the Arab community. “Israel has created ISIS here in order to divide and conquer,” argued Jalal Dari, a Muslim resident of Nazareth originally from the West Bank city of Ramallah. Since jumping the West Bank-Israel barrier almost 20 years ago in order to work construction jobs in Israel, Dari has settled here and raised a family. But even as he talked of nefarious plots, he recognized that with the influx of economic migrants like himself from out of town, the city is witnessing the growth of a new generation that is socially fragmented and vulnerable to radicalization through the Internet. “This is not Islam,” he said. “Islam does not allow killing.”
Amal Abidallah, a Nazareth native visiting the church, interrupted Dari. “But why do they target the Christians?” she demanded. “What you’re saying is true in terms of Islam, but that’s not what we’re seeing.”
Muslims make up 70 percent of Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city. In the northern Galilee region, the Islamic movement’s popularity is growing.
“There are those who recognize the weakness, the economic difficulties here, and exploit Islam in order to corrupt the youth,” said Sheikh Abu Anas, the imam of the local mosque. Outside his prayer beads shop, he shows off newspaper cutout photos of Islamic leaders who, he says, “speak the truth.” Among them is the firebrand Sheikh Raed Saleh, the leader of the now outlawed Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, which does not recognize the state of Israel, as well as the toppled Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—all of whom built their power base through Islamic social service charities catering to vulnerable communities.
Some Christians have said Muslims in the area are attempting to instill cultural dominance, and in response a modest but growing number are beginning to publicly express their loyalty to the state of Israel, which they say can protect them from Islamic radicalism and other threats.
“We thank God for this safe haven and for being part of this miracle. Israel was created so that it can flourish,” wrote Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from a village outside Nazareth, on his Facebook page in a pre-Christmas message. “Israel is the only place in the Middle East where Christians are not persecuted and their population has increased, rather than decreased as in all other Islamic nations.”
Click here to read more.