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Nazareth’s disappearing Christian population - Crime and growing Islamic presence push Christians out of Jesus’ hometown

Christian presence is diminishing in cities at the heart of Christian heritage

Members of the Arab community protest against recent violence in their community, in Nazareth, northern Israel, June 9, 2023. (Photo: Flash90)

Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel and renowned as the childhood home of Jesus, is facing a daunting challenge as its centuries-old Christian population faces a burgeoning mafia crime wave that is sweeping northern Israel, as well as the rise of Islam.

According to a recent report in The Telegraph, Christian store owners have been targeted by predominantly Muslim mafia gangs, which are extorting exorbitant protection fees amounting to roughly $13,500 a month.

Despite efforts by Israel’s Shin Bet security agency and increased police patrols, the situation has only worsened, leading to an exodus of Christians from the city. 

Peter Roshrash, a veteran police inspector, said the situation is like the Wild West. 

“In Nazareth, the mafia will shoot at the stores, then tell them they need ‘chawa’ [protection money]. It’s like the Wild West,” Roshrash said. 

Roshrash also accused the mafia members of hiding weapons in the homes of Christians, often threatening the occupants with death if they decided to report to the authorities.

The impact on Nazareth's Christian population, which was once considered the majority, has been profound. While the Christian population of Nazareth was around 80% when Israel gained its independence in 1948, today, they constitute only 20% of the population. Many have fled to Western countries, while others have moved to primarily Jewish neighborhoods to escape the violence.

Easter and Christmas celebrations, once vibrant and integral to the city's cultural fabric, have dwindled, and Christian-owned businesses are disappearing, replaced by Muslim-owned businesses.

The surge in mafia violence has become a national concern, however, despite promises made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the mafia continues to strengthen its grip. 

Last year, Nazareth was one of the deadliest cities due to criminal violence, according to the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit group that works for Jewish-Arab equality in Israel. 

“Nazareth became a focal point for crime in 2023,” the group said in a report on violent crime last year.

Municipal officials have attempted to downplay any religious aspect of the mafia's activities, insisting that asserting that the targeting is indiscriminate, affecting both Muslims and Christians alike.

Municipality Spokesman Salem Sharara said, “If there is a mafia, it’s against Muslims and the Christians alike … You think the rich Muslims aren’t also a target for the mafia? To the mafia, there is no religion.” 

However, there is a long history of Christians being mistreated by Muslims in the Holy Land. 

In the late 1990s, a group of Muslims tried to erect a mosque on the property of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. While the effort eventually proved unsuccessful, many Arab political groups in Israel and the Palestinian Territories have grown increasingly Islamic in character as their previous socialist stances have fallen out of favor. 

Muslim pressure on the Christian population can be seen in the Palestinian Territories, and across the Middle East, as well. 

The Arab population across Israel, including Nazareth, has increasingly demanded more government support to combat rising crime rates. While the outbreak of the Gaza War led to an initial decrease in violent crime and deaths in the Arab sector, a recent rise in criminal attacks appears to mark a return to 2023’s record of violence. 

Many Christians, both in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, who are often relatively wealthier than the Muslim population, have the means to relocate, abandoning cities like Nazareth and Bethlehem, which lie at the heart of Christian history and heritage. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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