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Caught in the Crossfire: Israeli Christians Face Hezbollah’s Relentless Attacks

The unceasing bombardment of rockets and armed drones has affected all aspects of daily life in the region.
Local Druze men watch the flames burning a field after rockets launched from southern Lebanon landed on the Banias area in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights on June 9, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters. (photo: Jalaa Marey / Getty )

Caught in the Crossfire: Israeli Christians Face Hezbollah’s Relentless Attacks

By Michele Chabin, The National Catholic Register

JERUSALEM — With all eyes on the Hamas-Israel war and growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, many people around the world have ignored the threat to Israel from its northern neighbor, Lebanon.  

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre, Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terror organization and militia with 60,000 soldiers, has been launching rockets and armed drones at communities in northern Israel from its perch in southern Lebanon. The Israeli Defense Force often responds to the attacks by launching rockets across the border.  

Hezbollah’s attacks, which sometimes number dozens a day, have caused damage, casualties and fear in the towns, villages and kibbutzim (communal farms) that dot Israel’s mostly rural northern border. This has affected the lives of all Israelis who live near Israel’s border with Lebanon, including tens of thousands of Christians. 

“This is a war of attrition,” said Bishop Rafic Nahra, patriarchal vicar for Israel and auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, describing the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. “People’s lives are affected. It is a very difficult situation.” 

While there are some Christians who are visiting Israel on solidarity missions or serving as volunteers to Israeli farmers and others in need, they rarely visit the usual Christian holy sites.  

“There is very little tourism,” Father Nahra said. “A few Asian groups but almost no Americans or Europeans.” This is a big blow for the country’s 185,000-strong Christian community, which relies heavily on pilgrimages. “All those who worked in hotels, in Christian shops, who produce items sold to pilgrims aren’t working.” Even the large hostel run by the Sisters of Nazareth is shuttered. 

Perhaps even more worrying, the violent attacks by Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south “have affected the trust between Arabs and Jews,” Father Nahra said. Most Israeli Christians are Arabs or live in Arabic-speaking communities. 

Since the start of the war, he noted, “Jewish employers have been much more wary of hiring Arab employees” due to security concerns or bigotry — or both. “Some of our young people are thinking of leaving the country.”   

Daily Life Compromised

Hezbollah’s relentless attacks are directly affecting Israeli Christians’ ability to conduct day-to-day life and even to pray.  

On Christmas, Hezbollah fired an anti-tank missile at St. Mary’s Church in Iqrit, a former Melkite (Greek Catholic) village depopulated by the Israeli Army in 1948. The missile severely wounded an 86-year-old Christian man, while a second missile wounded first responders who had gone to his aid. The church itself was not damaged.

“Since then, Iqrit has been a closed military zone,” said Nemi Ashkar, whose family once lived in Iqrit. It’s too dangerous to hold church services. Although the church’s cemetery remains open, “it’s risky to gather there. Now the number of mourners is limited to something like 10 people.” 

Father Jawhar Tonios offers communion at a Maronite Sunday church service as Lebanese Christians preserve daily life despite close proximity to Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.(Photo: Scott Peterson)2024 Scott Peterson

Iqrit is just a few miles from the Lebanon border.  

Ashkar, who lives in Kfar Yasif, a Christian-Muslim-Druze village in western Galilee about 13 miles from the Lebanon border, said the villagers hear the booms from Lebanon and Israel day and night. Not surprisingly, Israelis are afraid to venture north, and are taking their vacations and business elsewhere.  

“Our businesses rely largely on the traffic of people who come from the center of the country, from Tel Aviv,” said Ashkar, whose family owns a winery. “Times are tough.”  

Neveen Elias, an Aramean Christian who lives in Jish, about 2.5 miles from the Lebanon border, said it is impossible to maintain a routine. The village is located on the northeastern slope of Mount Meron, where the IDF reportedly maintains an air traffic base often targeted by Hezbollah. 

“We are suffering from the daily rockets, the sound of rockets from Lebanon into Israel and vice-versa. The rockets also cause wildfires,” Elias said.

Due to the dangerous situation, residents need to stay close to bomb shelters, but there are not enough to house the village’s entire population for an extended period. Although the local school has bomb shelters, they cannot accommodate everyone in the school at once. 

“The Home Front Command said all classes should be held in the school’s shelter, so now the school is run in shifts,” Elias explained. Half the children study from 8 in the morning until noon; the rest from noon till 4 p.m.

With a half-day of learning, “parents can’t work, and there’s not enough time for the children to learn.” Coming on the heels of the pandemic, when Israel closed schools for extended periods,  the conflict with Hezbollah has exacerbated an already bad situation, Elias said. 

“Children need to meet and socialize outside the home, but that is impossible.” 

The deteriorating security situation is also affecting everything from commerce to where people pray. 

Today, churchgoers in Jish pray in a relatively secure part of the church. While not an actual bomb shelter, it is much more secure than the church’s multi-windowed sanctuary. When Hezbollah first started attacking, parishioners fled the sanctuary as air-raid sirens wailed.  

Another war-related dilemma is where to hold weddings. 

“For us, it’s the season for weddings,” Elias said. The ceremonies and festivities traditionally last up to a week, with families arriving from all over. 

“My cousin is getting married in August and a lot of family and friends who live elsewhere are afraid to come to Jish,” Elias said. 

Asked whether the wedding could take place elsewhere, Elias was skeptical. She explained that the parties would ordinarily be held outdoors, and that much of the food for the parties and actual wedding would be homemade. The cost of a catered wedding in a hall in a town or city would be prohibitively expensive, and against local custom.  

Although the majority of Elias’s angst is directed toward Hezbollah, she is also upset that the Israeli government has not offered the residents of Jish war-related financial assistance, or drawn up plans to evacuate residents if the conflict intensifies. 

So far, about 60,000 mostly Jewish residents of the northern border have been evacuated and housed in hotels around the country. 

But not the residents of Jish, where many Aramean Christians, including Elias and her son, are proudly Israeli and serve in the IDF. 

“We suffer like everyone in the north, Jews and Druze. We serve in the IDF, we coexist with the Jews who live near us. Is this discrimination? I’m sad to say Yes.”

Elias — who is a reserve soldier in the IDF’s Home Front Command — is worried about her soldier son, who spent three months in southern Israel before moving to the Syria-Lebanon border. 

“Having a son in the army makes our lives more stressful. I hear a lot how Hezbollah is trying to attack their units. I am praying all the time for this war to end soon,” Elias said. 

‘Iranian Proxy’

Shadi Khalloul, who heads the Aramean-Christian Association in Israel, said no one should be surprised that Israeli Christians are serving in the IDF.

“Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy promoting the Islamic revolution and the values of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran is a threat to Christians throughout the region, including in Lebanon and Syria. It is a threat to us in the Galilee.” 

If Iran-backed Hezbollah isn’t stopped, Khalloul said, “we will be treated no differently than how Christians have been treated in other Islamic states. Check out how Christians are treated in Iran.”

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