In just a few short days, Pope Francis will be arriving in Israel for his first visit to the Holy Land as leader of the Catholic world. Pope Francis has earned much goodwill in his first year as Pope, and Israelis of all walks of life will welcome him with open arms.
In recent years, as a result of the so-called "Arab Spring," Christian communities throughout the region have been in grave danger. When Pope Francis lands in Israel, he is not just visiting the Holy Land, but he is boarding a steady ship in the tumultuous Middle East.
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We often say that the establishment of the modern state of Israel marked a turning point in the history of the Jewish people. We went from merely surviving to thriving. When our founding fathers drafted Israel's Declaration of Independence, they realized that ensuring the freedom of the Jewish people wasn’t enough. A true Jewish state, as envisioned by our leaders, must be based on Jewish values. The newly reborn Jewish state was determined to protect the rights of other religious groups. Israel's Declaration of Independence guarantees "complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex."
Flash forward 66 years later, and I believe Israel’s founding fathers would be proud.
In 1948, Israel’s Christian community was only 34,000. Today, it is 160,000 strong, in large part due to Israel’s commitment to enact laws that protect the spirit of our Declaration of Independence.
The litmus test for any democracy is how the majority treats the nation’s minorities. Today, Israel’s Christian community is intertwined with the day-to-day lives of all Israelis. We live together, we work together, we eat together, we shop at the malls together. Israeli-Arab Christians are among the nation’s doctors, teachers, musicians, actors, parliamentarians, Supreme Court justices, and the list goes on.
The situation in Israel is unique considering what is going on around us.
To our north, in Syria, a full-blown Civil War rages on, and the remaining Christians have been under constant barrage of physical and psychological warfare. Even before the war, the Christian community in Syria had fallen dramatically, from 30 percent of the population in the 1920s to less than 10 percent today. In neighboring Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon, hardships for Christians continue. Tragically, some of the hundreds of thousands of Christians who fled war-torn Iraq wound up in Syria, only to have war break out again, threatening their security and livelihoods.
We can relate. Shortly after Israel declared independence, and the Arab world’s armies converged upon us, a terrible tragedy befell Jews who were living outside Israel. Seemingly overnight, despite generations of relatively peaceful coexistence, 800,000 Jews from across the Middle East were purged from countries they had called home for generations.
The campaign of terror and violence that forced this mass exodus of Jews in 1948 is being repeated today. Said Cardinal Timothy Dolan last November, "Our Christian brothers and sisters [are] experiencing lethal persecution on a scale that defies belief."
Of the global Christian population of 2.2 billion, only 0.6 percent live in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the Pew Research Center. Just 100 years ago, Christians made up one-fifth of the region’s inhabitants. Today that number is just 4 percent.
If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, or at least something for Pope Francis and the world to hold onto during his visit, it’s the quiet safety and stability of Christians throughout the Holy Land, the state of Israel. Again, Christians in Israel aren’t just surviving into the 21st century, they’re thriving.
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Christians in Israel graduate high school at a rate higher than Jewish Israelis or Muslim Arab-Israelis. In higher education, the percentage of Arab Christians who study for degrees in medicine is over double the national average. This success in education has translated to Israel’s Christian population being among the more prosperous and financially stable groups.
Earlier this year, Israel’s Parliament passed a law that grants its Christian community their own representation on the Advisory Committee for Equal Opportunity, which will help integrate them further, and boost employment rates.
While a growing and successful Christian population in the Holy Land is encouraging, it is equally important that we keep, respect, and protect what makes this land so revered for Christians, just as we do for Jews and Muslims. In other words, to truly protect a religious minority, you must also ensure the protection of their houses of worship: The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and subsequently resurrected, the city of Nazareth, the city of Bethlehem, and the Church of Nativity, where Jesus was born.
The state of Israel safeguards these sites, not for tourism, not for public image, but because we know what it is like to lose our house of worship. The Jewish people witnessed our most revered holy site, the Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed twice. We saw for centuries ruling armies desecrate and disrespect the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. Protecting and preserving Israel’s Christian community and heritage also sends a powerful message to Christians around the world to know that "Yes, you are safe here." Whether in the Old City of Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter, or in a small church in Haifa, Israel’s Christian community can feel not just safe, but at home.
While non-Jewish Israelis are normally exempt from military service, many Christians, as well as those from the Druze community, chose to volunteer. In 2013, there was a threefold increase in the number of Christian volunteers for the Israel Defense Forces. Over the past few months, strong efforts have been made to continue to integrate Israel’s Christian community even more.
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For the first time in history, the Israeli government will begin sending out enlistment forms for Israeli-Christians, as we recognize their growing enthusiasm to be a part of Israel’s story and actively contribute to the betterment of its citizenry. Military service will continue to be voluntary, but Israel wants to open its doors to all those who wish to serve.
Pope Francis’ upcoming visit reaffirms our collective faith in the friendship between Jews and Christians. Our historic divisions have transformed into a period of historic unity between the Jewish people and the Christian world. This is true not just in Israel, but around the world. I hope Pope Francis’ visit shines a light on Israel’s proud Christian community, as we stand together in the Holy Land.
Ambassador Ido Aharoni is the Consul General of Israel in New York
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