Christianity in Israel

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9th Station of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa procession route in Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the background is venerated by Christians as the site of the Burial of Jesus.[1]

In terms of demographics, adherents to Christianity make up around two percent of the population in Israel (177,000 people) as of the end of 2019.[2][3] By far, most of these followers (78%) are Arab-Christians,[3] who are mostly adherents of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church (60% of Arab Christians).[4] Some 42% of all Israeli Christians are affiliated with the Melkite Greek Church, and 30%[4]-32% with the Orthodox Church; smaller numbers are split between Latin Rite Catholics with 13% of Christians, about 25,000 Russian Orthodox Christians (Russian Orthodox Church), about 15,000 Arameans (including 7,000 Maronites) who adhere to the Maronite and Syriac Churches, 3,000 to 10,000 adherents of Armenian Churches, 1,000 Assyrians affiliated with the Assyrian Churches, a community of around 1,000 Copts, being registered as "Arab Christians", though their Arab identity is disputed, and small branches of Protestants.

Ten Christian churches are formally recognized under Israel's confessional system, for the self-regulation and state recognition of status issues, such as marriage and divorce: the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Latin Church, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Syriac Maronite Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church.[citation needed] However, the practice of religion is free, with no restrictions on the practice of other denominations. There are approximately 300 Christians who had converted from Islam according to one 2014 estimate, and most of them are part of the Roman Catholic church.[5] A certain number of Israelis also practice Messianic Judaism—usually considered a syncretist form of Christianity. The number of Messianic Jews in Israel is estimated at around 20,000. They are mostly classified "without religious affiliation" rather than Jewish or Christian.

Israeli Christians are historically bound with neighbouring Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian Christians. The cities and communities where most of Christians in Israel reside are Haifa, Nazareth, Jish, Mi'ilya, Fassuta and Kafr Yasif[6]. Christian Arabs are one of the most educated groups in Israel. Maariv newspaper has described the Christian Arabs sector as "the most successful in the education system",[7] since Christian Arabs fared the best in terms of education in comparison to any other group receiving an education in Israel.[8]


Yardenit, Jordan River baptismal site

According to historical and traditional sources, Jesus lived in Roman Judea, and died and was buried on the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City Jerusalem making the area a Holy Land for Christianity. However, few Christians now live in the region, compared to Muslims and Jews. This is mainly because Islam displaced Christianity throughout the Middle East, and the rise of modern Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel has seen millions of Jews emigrate to Israel.

The Christian population in Israel has increased significantly with the immigration of many mixed families from the former Soviet Union (1989-late 1990s) and by the influx of some 10,000 Christian Maronites from Lebanon in 2000.[citation needed] Recently a further increase in Christianity came with arrival of many foreign workers and asylum seekers, some of Christian background (for instance from the Philippines and South Sudan). As a result, numerous churches have opened in Tel Aviv.[9]


As of December 2013, about 161,000 Israeli citizens practiced Christianity, together comprising about 2% of the total population.[4] The largest group consists of Melkites (about 60% of Israel's Christians), followed by the Greek Orthodox (about 30%), with the remaining ca. 10% spread between the Roman Catholic (Latin), Maronite, Anglican, Lutheran, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopian, Coptic and other denominations.[4]

Catholic Church[edit]

Six of the particular churches of the Catholic Church have jurisdiction within Israel: the Melkite Greek Catholic Church is by far the largest Catholic church in Israel,[4] the Latin Church (by far the dominant Catholic church worldwide), the Armenian Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, and the Syriac Maronite Church.

Eastern Orthodox[edit]

Around 30% of Christians in Israel are adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church[4]. There are two Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastical jurisdictions on the territory of Israel: Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem (covering central and southern regions) and Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch (covering only the most northern region). Eastern Orthodox Christians in Israel have many churches, monasteries, seminaries, and other religious institutions all over the land, particularly in Jerusalem.

Oriental Orthodox[edit]

Oriental Orthodoxy in Israel is represented mainly by adherents of Armenian Apostolic Church, represented by Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and adherents of Syriac Orthodox Church, headed by archbishop Severius Malke Mourad, patriarchal exarch of Jerusalem.[10]


There has been a small Protestant community in Israel since the foundation of the state in 1948, who are either Christian Arabs who had changed their religious affiliation to Protestant teachings or European residents moving to the area.

The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East is a province of the Anglican Communion. The seat of the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem is St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem. Other prominent Episcopal churches in Israel include Christ Church, Jerusalem, built in 1849, which is inside the Jaffa Gate of the contested Old City of Jerusalem, and Christ Church, Nazareth, built in 1871, both built during the Ottoman period.[11]

Jewish Christians[edit]

Jewish Christians are not considered bona-fide Jews under Israel's Law of Return[12] (see Oswald Rufeisen).

Hebrew Christian movement[edit]

The Hebrew Christian movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries consisted of Jews who converted to Christianity as a result of Protestant missionary activity. It was incorporated into the later parallel Messianic Jewish movement in the late 1960s.

Messianic Jews[edit]

The number of Messianic Jews in Israel is estimated at around 20,000.[13][14]

In Jerusalem, there are twelve Messianic congregations[15][failed verification]. On 23 February 2007, Israel Channel 2 News released a news documentary about the growing number of Messianic Jews in Israel.[16]

Relations with other religions[edit]

Christian–Jewish relations[edit]

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, regarded as the holiest site of the Christian religion where it is believed Jesus Christ was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead.

Hebrew-speakers call Christians as Notzri (also romanized Notsri), which means Nazarene (originated from Nazareth).[17] The word is cognate to the Arabic Nasrani.


Israel's Declaration of Independence, issued in 1948, describes the country as a Jewish state but clearly extends religious freedoms to all of its inhabitants by stating that the State of Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.[citation needed]

During the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the fate of the Christian Palestinians was similar to that of the Muslims, in term of military administration and land confiscations.[18] However, Christian churches generally avoided destruction or defilement during the 1948/1949 Arab-Israeli War. Aware of the international attention to the conflict, David Ben-Gurion is said to have expressly forbidden to loot or defile holy places.[18] For the same reason, Israeli authorities have a more lenient attitude to the right of return of the Christian refugees.[18]

According to Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, since the reunification of Jerusalem, the Christian as well as Jewish and Islamic holy sites were opened for multinational pilgrims by the Israeli authorities, for the first time since 1948, when the Kingdom of Jordan took over the Eastern half of the city.[19]

As of 2013, the Government - Christians Forum was formed in Jerusalem, Israel, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Public Security, to address the concerns of the Christian leaders and representatives in Israel, and in order to empower the relations between the government and Christian leaders and representatives in Israel.


Some ultra-Orthodox Jews have been accused of having a decades-old practice of cursing and spitting on Christian clergymen in Jerusalem,[20] and there have been cases where churches and cemeteries were defaced by price taggers.[21][22][23][24] When the doors of the Latrun Trappist monastery were set aflame and the phrase "Jesus was a monkey" was painted on its walls, the Vatican reacted with a rare official complaint against the Israeli government's inaction.[25] In June 2015, the Church of the Multiplication was significantly damaged by an arson attack and defaced by Hebrew graffiti, with the words "the false gods will be eliminated" (quoted from the Aleinu prayer).[26][27] This attack was labelled as "terrorism" by Israeli officials.[28]

Prosperity of Christian community[edit]

Gabriel Naddaf argues that Israel is the only country in which Christian communities have been able to thrive in the Middle East.[29] However, there has also been criticism by Palestinian Christians of this claim, with such statements being called a "manipulation" of the facts.[30] Members of the Palestinian Christian community claim that such statements attempt to hide the discrimination that Arab Christians face within Israel due to alleged discrimination against Arabs as well as the effect of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza on the Christian population in these areas.[31]

United Allies[edit]

Recently, there has been a steady undercurrent of Christian Arabs who seek deeper integration into Israeli society. Under the leadership of Greek Orthodox priest Gabriel Naddaf, United Allies is a political party that advocates Christian enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces and a more distinct societal separation of Christians from Muslims.[32] This separation is partly based on the purported fact that Christians in Israel are not technically Arabs, seeing as they were present in the holy land long before the Arab conquest, hallmarked by the Siege of Jerusalem. This distinction is in the process of being formalized into law, as the Likud government is currently drafting legislation to grant this request.[33]

This new attitude is founded largely by the perception by some that only in Israel the Christian population is growing due to natural increase and no state persecution, seeing the entire Middle East, except Lebanon, as where Christianity is and has been rapidly on the decline. In addition, increasing numbers of Christian leaders and community members are pointing to Muslim violence as a threat to their way of life in Arab majority cities and towns.[34] Sons of the New Testament as a party and a national movement has been met with wide admiration from the Jews of Israel, harshly negative scorn from the Muslim Arabs, and mixed reactions from the Christians themselves. Because of Israel's parliamentary system where each party must attain at least 2% of the popular vote, Sons of the New Testament must be supported by non-Christians to enter the Knesset.

Interfaith institutions[edit]

Arab Christian cemetery in Haifa

In 2008, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat, established the Center for Jewish–Christian Understanding and Cooperation or CJCUC, the first Orthodox Jewish institution to dialogue with the Christian world on a religious and theological basis. The center, currently located in Jerusalem, engages in Hebraic Bible Study for Christians, from both the local community and from abroad, has organized numerous interfaith praise initiatives, such as Day to Praise, and has established many fund-raising initiatives such as Blessing Bethlehem which aim to aid the persecuted Christian community of Bethlehem, in part, and the larger persecuted Christian community of the Middle East region and throughout the world.

Christian–Muslim relations[edit]

A recent survey indicated that Christians in Israel are prosperous and well-educated – but some fear that Muslim intimidation will cause a mass escape to the West.[35]

Recently there has been an increase of anti-Christian incidents in the Nazareth area, inspired by the rise of Jihadist forces in the Middle East. Many Christians have complained of being targeted by Muslims, whom they believe are trying to either drive them out of cities that have traditionally had large Christian populations, or to "persuade" them to convert.[35] In 1999, for example, radical Muslims in Nazareth rioted as they attempted to wrest land from a major Christian shrine to build a mosque.[35] In one incident during 2014, a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was installed in front of a church in Nazareth.[36]

There has also been increasing incitement and violence by the Muslims against Christians who voice their support for the Israel Defense Forces. In a recent case, the son of Gabriel Naddaf, a prominent Eastern Orthodox priest who is regarded as being pro-Israel, was severely beaten. Nadaf himself has been suffering from vasts amount of Muslim incitement in recent years.[37][38]

A 2015 study estimates some 300 Christians from a Muslim background in Israel.[39]

A 2016 study[40] by Pew research points to the convergence of political views of both Muslims and Christians over issues like – Israel cannot be a Jewish state and a democracy at the same time (Christians: 72%; Muslims: 63%), US being too supportive of Israel (Christians: 86%; Muslims: 75%), Israeli government not making enough efforts to make peace with Palestine (Christians: 80%; Muslims: 72%).



Catholic school in Haifa: High level Christian schools are among Israel's best performing educational institutions.[41]

According to the study "Are Christian Arabs the New Israeli Jews? Reflections on the Educational Level of Arab Christians in Israel" by Hanna David from the University of Tel Aviv, one of the factors why Arab Christians are the most educated segment of Israel's population is the high level of the Christian educational institutions. Christian schools in Israel are among the best schools in the country, and while those schools represent only 4% of the Arab schooling sector, about 34% of Arab university students come from Christian schools,[42] and about 87% of the Israeli Arabs in the high tech sector have been educated in Christian schools.[43][44] A 2011 Maariv article described the Christian Arab sector as "the most successful in the education system",[7] an opinion supported by others who point out that Christian Arabs fared best in terms of education in comparison to any other group receiving an education in Israel.[8]

High school and matriculation exams[edit]

The Israel Central Bureau of Statistics noted that when taking into account the data recorded over the years, Christian Arabs fared the best in terms of education in comparison to any other group receiving an education in Israel.[8] In 2016 Christian Arabs had the highest rates of success at matriculation examinations, namely 73.9%, both in comparison to Muslim and Druze Israelis (41% and 51.9% respectively), and to the students from the different branches of the Hebrew (majority Jewish) education system considered as one group (55.1%).[45][46]

Higher education[edit]

Christian Arabs are one of the most educated groups in Israel.[47][48] Statistically, Christian Arabs in Israel have the highest rates of educational attainment among all religious communities, according to a data by Israel Central Bureau of Statistics in 2010, 63% of Christian Arabs have had college or postgraduate education, the highest of any religious group.[49] Despite the fact that Arab Christians only represent 2.1% of the total Israeli population, in 2014 they accounted for 17.0% of the country's university students, and for 14.4% of its college students.[50] The percentage of Arab Christian women who are receiving higher education is also higher than that of other groups.[7] There are more Christians who have attained a bachelor's degree or higher academic degrees than the median Israeli population.[8]

The rate of students studying in the field of medicine was higher among Christian Arab students than that of all other sectors.[51]

In 2013, Arab Christian students were also the vanguard in terms of eligibility for higher education,[8] as the Christian Arab students had the highest rates of receiving Psychometric Entrance Test scores which make them eligible for acceptance into universities, data from the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics show that 61% of Christian Arabs were eligible for university studies, compared to 50% of Jewish, 45% of Druze, and 35% of Muslim students.[52]


In terms of their socio-economic situation, Arab Christians are more similar to the Jewish population than to the Muslim Arab population.[53] They have the lowest incidence of poverty and the lowest percentage of unemployment which is 4.9% compared to 6.5% among Jewish men and women.[54] They have also the highest median household income among Arab citizens of Israel and second highest median household income among the Israeli ethno-religious groups.[55] Also Arab Christians have a high presentation in science and in the white collar professions.[56] In Israel, Arab Christians are portrayed as a hard-working and upper-middle-class educated ethno-religious minority.

Biggest communities[edit]

Biggest Christian communities as of 2017[57] and 2018:[58]
Northern District Haifa District Jerusalem District Tel Aviv
City Population % of
Data from: City Population % of
Data from: City Population % of
Data from: City Population % of
Data from:
Nazareth 21,900 28.6% 2018 Haifa 20,000: (of them 16.100 Arab Chr.) 7.1% 2018 Jerusalem 16,000: (of them 12.700 Arab Chr.) 1.8% 2018 Tel Aviv 4,000: (majority of them non-Arab Chr.) 1% 2018
Shefa-'Amr 10,300 25.1% 2018
I'billin 5,600 42.8% 2017
Kafr Yasif 5,200 52.2% 2017
Maghar 4,700 21.0% 2017
Eilabun 4,000 70.8% 2017
Rameh 3,800 50.0% 2017
Yafa an-Naseriyye 3,500 18.5% 2017
Mi'ilya 3,200 97.4% 2017
Fassuta 3,100 99.8% 2017
Reineh 2,900 15.4% 2017
Kafr Kanna 2,200 10.1% 2017
Abu Snan 2,100 15.4% 2017
Ma'alot-Tarshiha 2,100 10.1% 2017
Jish 1,900 63.5% 2017
Tur'an 1,600 11.4% 2017
Sakhnin 1,600 5.2% 2017
Deir Hanna 1,000 10.0% 2017
Bi'ina 600 7.4% 2017
Hurfeish 200 3.2% 2017
  • Note: Overwhelming majority of the Christians in the Northern District are Arab Christians.


Christians in Israel are generally more religious than Israeli Jews and Druzes. Over half (57%) say religion is very important in their lives.[59] About one third (34%) pray daily and 38% report that they attend church at least once a week.[59] Israeli Christians also are more likely than Jews and Druze to participate in weekly worship services.[59] Nearly all (94%) Israeli Christians believe in God, of whom 79% say they are absolutely certain.[59]

Beliefs and practices[edit]

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2015, 60% of Christians in Israel fast during Lent,[60] Most (81%) also said that they have icons of saints or other holy figures in their home. Of them, 83% claimed that their icons were anointed with holy oil.[60] The survey also found that the majority of Israeli Christians (89%) say the Bible is the word of God, of whom 65% believe that the Bible should be taken literally.[60] 33% of Christians believe that Jesus will return during their lifetime, which was similar to the number of Muslims who held that belief (33%).[60]

The majority of Christians are not comfortable with their child marrying outside of the faith.[61]


Christians in Israel are more likely than Jews, Muslims, and Druze to say they are proud of their identity.[62] About 89% say they have a strong sense of belonging to the Christian community.[62] Two thirds believe that they have a special responsibility to help fellow members of their religious group who are in need around the world.[62]

The nature of Christian identity varies among Christians as well. Christians in Israel are about evenly divided among those who say their identity is mainly a matter of religion (31%),[62] those who say being Christian is mainly about ancestry and/or culture (34%) and those who say their identity is characterized by a combination of religion and ancestry/culture (34%).[62]

Aramean identity[edit]

In September 2014, Ministry of the Interior Gideon Sa'ar instructed the PIBA to recognize Arameans as an ethnicity separate from Israeli Arabs.[63][64] Under the Ministry of the Interior's guidance, people born into Christian families or clans who have either Aramaic or Maronite cultural heritage within their family are eligible to register as Arameans. About 200 Christian families were thought to be eligible prior to this decision.[65] According to an August 9, 2013 Israel Hayom article, at that time an estimated 10,500 persons were eligible to receive Aramean ethnic status according to the new regulation, including 10,000 Maronites (which included 2,000 former SLA members) and 500 Syriac Catholics.[66]

The first person to receive the "Aramean" ethnic status in Israel was 2 year old Yaakov Halul in Jish on October 20, 2014.[67]

Another milestone in recognizing Aramean minority as a distinct culture in Israel was made by Israeli court in 2019, which ruled that Aramean minority could choose Jewish or Arab education, rather than making children with Aramean identity to be automatically designated to Arabic-language schools.[68]

The recognition of the Aramean ethnicity caused mixed reactions among Israeli minorities, the Christian community, and among the general Arab Israeli population.

While some celebrated the success of their long legal struggle to be recognized as a non-Arab ethnic minority, other members of the Arab community in Israel denounced it as an attempt to divide Arab Christians.[69] Representatives of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem officially denounced the move.[69]

Many in Israeli academia advocate the recognition of the Aramean identity and have called on the government of Israel to promote the awareness regarding this issue on the basis of the international principle of ethnic self-determination as espoused by Wilson's 14 points.[70] One of the staunchest supporters of the recognition of the Aramean identity is Father Gabriel Naddaf, who is one of the leaders of the Christians in Israel. He advocated on behalf of his Aramean followers and thanked the Interior Ministry's decision as a "historic move".[71]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]