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Concern over Israeli law on the status of Arab Christian citizens

Statement from the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, the WCC general secretary, expressing concern about the law passed by the Israeli Knesset on 24 February 2014.

19 March 2014

In response to the concerns raised by Palestinian churches in Palestine and Israel, the World Council of Churches expresses its own grave concern about the law passed by the Israeli Knesset on 24 February 2014, which would define the status of Palestinian Arab Christians in the State of Israel against their own will. The bill passed into law expands the “Advisory Committee for Equal Opportunity in Employment Commission” from five to 10 members. As expressed in the statement of the heads of the Catholic Church in Israel, the law “introduces a distinction between Christian and Muslim Palestinians and states that Christian Palestinians are Christians and not Palestinians”. Because of recent immigration, not all Christians within the State of Israel are Palestinians. Nevertheless, this law is a matter of great concern to the international ecumenical community for two major reasons:

  1. The law establishes, for the first time, a legislative distinction between the indigenous Palestinian Arab Christians and Palestinian Arab Muslims, both of whom are citizens of the State of Israel. This distinction is an unacceptable severing of entire communities from their cultural identity.
  2. The Knesset has transgressed all proper distinctions between state and religious authority by attempting to define the nature and character of Christian communities within Israel against their own will and self-understanding. Such efforts are most often seen only in totalitarian regimes. This law defiles the sanctity of Christian identity, which is grounded in Christian faith.

The WCC has long affirmed the right of religious communities to define themselves. Religious identity should not be manipulated for political gain. During the recent core group meeting of the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF), the World Council of Churches heard the voices of Latin Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah and Bishop Munib A. Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land saying, “No one has the right to tell me who I am!”

Rather than creating divisions among communities, the Knesset should pave the way for breaking down barriers that divide people according to ethnicity and religion. Therefore, I call on Israeli authorities to reverse this law to stop an injustice against Christian citizens of Israel. I recommend that all WCC member churches manifest their solidarity with Christian sisters and brothers, and raise this issue with representatives of Israel and with their own governments, and urge the reversal both of this law and of this spirit in the Knesset.

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
WCC general secretary

For a deeper understanding of this issue, please see the statement in English, and Arabic, approved by the Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries, which was published by the Justice and Peace Commission. The statement was issued at the bi-annual meeting of the heads of the Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land, held from 11 to 12 March 2014 in Tiberias.