As Christmas neared, an 85-foot-high tree presided over the little square in front of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Kindergarten children with Santa Claus hats entered the church and listened to their teacher explain in Arabic the Greek inscriptions on the walls, while a group of Russian pilgrims knelt on their knees and whispered in prayer. In Nazareth’s old city, merchants sold the usual array of Christmas wares.
This year, however, the familiar rhythms of Christmas season in the Holy Land have been disturbed by a new development: the rise of an independent voice for Israel’s Christian community, which is increasingly trying to assert its separate identity. For decades, Arab Christians were considered part of Israel’s sizable Palestinian minority, which comprises both Muslims and Christians and makes up about a fifth of the country’s citizens, according to the Israeli government.
But now, an informal grass-roots movement, prompted in part by the persecution of Christians elsewhere in the region since the Arab Spring, wants to cooperate more closely with Israeli Jewish society””which could mean a historic change in attitude toward the Jewish state. “Israel is my country, and I want to defend it,” says Henry Zaher, an 18-year-old Christian from the village of Reineh who was visiting Nazareth. “The Jewish state is good for us.”