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Israeli army recruits Arab Christians

| Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, 6:51 p.m.
In this photograph made on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, an Israeli soldier wears crucifixes during the 'Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum' in Nazareth. Army service in Israel is mandatory for Jews, though not all are called up. Druze leaders signed up their community for army service in the 1950's, and Druze men have been conscripted ever since, while Muslims and Christians are not required to serve. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

NAZARETH, Israel — Dozens of Israeli soldiers respectfully rose from their seats as the Israeli national anthem began playing. The tinny recording of “Hatikva,” an ode to the Jewish yearning for the Land of Israel, wrapped up a ceremony, held in Hebrew, during which speakers thanked the troops and handed out awards.

It looked like a typical motivational gathering for soldiers of the Jewish state — except that nearly all those in uniform weren't Jews and Hebrew wasn't their first language. They were Christian Arabs, a minority that has historically viewed itself as part of the Palestinian people and considered service in the army as taboo.

The gathering — a nod to Christian soldiers, who nibbled on cookies and chocolate Santas — was part of a new push by Israel's government and a Greek Orthodox priest to persuade more Christians to enlist.

The campaign has set off an emotional debate about identity among Christians, a tiny minority within Israel's predominantly Muslim Arab minority. So far the numbers of Christian Arabs enlisting is negligible, but with the community's fate possibly at stake, tempers have flared and each side has accused the other of using scare tactics and incitement.

Gabriel Nadaf, the priest promoting enlistment, said Christians must serve in the army if they want to integrate into Israeli society. “I believe in the shared fate of the Christian minority and the Jewish state,” he told the conference, held at a local hotel.

His spokesman warned that unlike Israel, the rest of the Middle East is a dangerous place for Christians. “They are burning churches, they are slaughtering them (Christians), they are raping the girls,” said the aide, Shadi Khalloul, referring to the targeting of Christian communities in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere by Islamic militants.

Arab Christians opposed to army service — the large majority in the community, according to its spokesmen — say the real goal is to divide and weaken Israel's 1.7 million Arabs, made up of Muslims, Christians and Druze, a secretive offshoot of Islam.

“It's an old Zionist scheme,” said Basel Ghattas, a Christian Arab lawmaker.

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