New Christians in Israel

By Jenkins, Philip | The Christian Century, January 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

New Christians in Israel


Jenkins, Philip, The Christian Century


Anyone with a taste for sharp satire will enjoy the wickedly funny 2003 film James' Journey to Jerusalem, which uses the familiar device of a wide-eyed Candide figure to expose the foibles of contemporary society--in this case, the state of Israel.

For American viewers, one surprising feature of the film is the background of James himself. He is a devoted African Christian. Clearly, the idea of African Christians in Israel is not considered even slightly strange in the film, and a moving scene shows James gathering with other immigrant believers in a crowded church. He moves in a transplanted African world that differs little from the better-known Christian expatriate communities of Europe.

Recent events in Iraq and elsewhere have made us familiar with the idea of the Middle East's Christian population as a threatened species. Yet beside the real dangers of violence and persecution faced by ancient churches, we also see startling signs of new Christian growth across the region. So many African and Asian immigrants have flocked there to find work that Christians make up 5 to 10 percent of the populations of the Arab Gulf states, and even Saudi Arabia.

In Israel too, substantial new migration has ensured that Christians have not disappeared from the region's religious mix. Traditionally, Palestine's Arab population had a sizable Christian minority, perhaps 20 percent of the whole in 1900. Continual emigration steadily reduced that share over the following century, and Muslim Palestinians had substantially higher birth rates. Recent Western travelers have bemoaned the shrinking Christian presence in the oldest centers of faith, even in towns like Nazareth and Bethlehem, where within a few years Christians might become as scarce as they are in Baghdad.

But Christian numbers have begun to swell again, drawing this time on wholly different sources. The fall of the Soviet Union was one major factor. As that empire declined, migration to Israel became common, so that today some 1.3 million Israelis speak Russian. Though most migrants claimed Jewish status in order to enter Israel, their Judaism was often tenuous. It is an open secret that for many who identified with any religion at all, it was Christianity-mainly Orthodox but also Baptist and Pentecostal.

Israel's Russian Christian community today is perhaps 80,000 strong, and the nation's Orthodox churches overflow at festivals like Christmas. The Israeli state has had to be flexible to accommodate those new citizens to the point of printing Hebrew New Testaments for the use of Christian recruits when they take their oaths of allegiance on entering the armed forces. …

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