A patriotic Christian Israeli is seeking to found a city exclusively for Christian Aramaeans in northern Israel in his quest to preserve the Aramean culture and language.
Captain Reserve Shadi Khalloul is a 42-year-old Aramean Christian who is a fellow of the Philos Project, and the chairman of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association. He also was a candidate for Knesset with the Jewish Zionist party in the 2015 elections. In an interview with The Daily Wire, he explained his dream to create his city and the progress so far.
Khalloul describes himself as an Aramean Christian and believes that modern Arameans are indigenous to the land of Israel as well as descendants of the very first Christians. He made it his life mission to preserve his people’s culture while he was in a “Bible as English Literature” class at the University of Nevada where he studied. He said that during a class, the professor referred to Aramaic as a “dead” language, to which he responded that he and his family spoke Aramaic and that it was not dead. Since then, Khalloul returned to Israel and has worked to preserve the Aramaic culture and language.
Khalloul plans to call the town "Aram Hiram" and explained that "Aram" is the name of all Aramaic kingdoms from the Bible, and "Hiram" comes from King Hiram of Lebanon who supplied King Solomon with wood from cedar trees for King Solomon's Temple. He says the land he is asking for consists of barren hills close to where the village of Kafr Bir’im was once located, where he claims his forefathers lived for the last 400 years until the inhabitants were evacuated during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Prior to the evacuation, Kafr Bir’im reportedly had a total population of 1050 Christians who Khalloul says belonged to the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch.
“We need to build bridges through a Christian positive attitude to ask for our rights in a way to lead towards coexistence with Jews and this can come by being positive citizens of the state, defending the state, integrating into the state, and asking for our rights at the same time,” he said.
Khalloul has had various meetings with government officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013, which he said later led to a 2014 measure that allowed Christians in Israel to register as “Aramean” on their identity card instead of as Arabs. Last week, he met with the General Director of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yoav Horovitz, where he pitched his proposal for Aram Hiram and discussed other Christian needs in Israel.
Shadi Khalloul and General Director of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yoav Horovitz.
Khalloul served in the Israeli Defense Forces as a paratrooper in 1993 and claims he was one of only five Christians to join the IDF that year. He also founded the Christian-Jewish Pre-Army Preparatory Program to prepare Christians and Jews for the IDF by giving them training and education on navigation, leadership, Christianity, Judaism, Aramaic, and the history of Israel. Of the Christian participants, he says, “I teach them about their common roots as Christians that developed from Judaism.”
Khalloul likes to speak about the historic relationship between Jews and Christians, especially over the Aramaic language — the language the Talmud is written in — and the language that Jesus spoke.
“Aramaic is common for both of us,” he says. “This is something that can strengthen Israel as a Jewish state and show the world that we Israelis are building and preserving [the Aramaean community] as the only country for the persecuted Christians in the Middle East.”
“We as a minority want to live as indigenous Aramaic Christians and to be able to have one sole Aramaic town that can preserve our Christian faith, Aramaic language, ethnic identity, and our heritage and explain more about our common roots with the Jews,” he said.
He says the town will have a “culture center” to encourage the learning of the Aramaic language and a research center that will focus on building Jewish And Christian relations. He plans to also have a school that will “revive the spoken language of Jesus," that the town will have Aramaic signs, and that people will speak Aramaic.
He says tourism will be the town's main source of income because “it will be a magnet for people all over.”
“We will have a hotel to host people and we will have a conference twice a year for Jewish-Christian relations,” he said. “I am planning to attract one or two factories or companies to come and build factories or branches.”
Khalloul hopes that western Christians visit the town as well. “We want Western Christians to come and stay with us — all denominations,” he said. “We want them to have a base here to come and see and be with us.”
He also claims that people are already pledging to move to the future town and he hopes to build 250-500 homes.
Khalloul notes that Israel has Jewish towns, Bedouin towns, Arab towns, Druze towns, and mixed towns, but not an Aramean town.
“We deserve one town as Christians,” he says. “This town would be defined as a community town for preserving the Aramaic language and people.”
Residents who decide to live in the town will have to abide by two rules, Khalloul claims. “1. We are all Israelis and equal citizens, but we will have a specification of Aramean and will be registered as Aramean. 2. Everyone must sign an agreement with the Ministry of Defense that kids must serve compulsory service in the IDF.”
He notes that men will have to serve, but women will have the ability to choose, similar to much of the Israeli Druze community. Currently, under Israeli law, only male and female Jews and Druze men are required to serve in the IDF with some exceptions.
According to Khalloul, there are 15,000 Israeli Christians praying in Aramaic in Israel, and the majority of them belong to the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch.
The proposal for the town is currently being reviewed but Khalloul says ultimately, “it is in Bibi’s hands, he gives the final word.”
Khalloul believes that establishing the town is in the best interest for Netanyahu in the aftermath of the basic law — which Khalloul supports — that was passed last month affirming Israel as a nation-state for the Jewish people which led to controversy and protests.
“He needs to have a wise, courageous decision to allow our Christian Aramean brothers to have a town,” he said. “This is the right timing to show the world that this national bill is guaranteeing a Jewish democratic state, but we are building a town for Christians. All of these people who are talking badly about this bill and calling it apartheid, it would give them a big knockout.”
“We need to help them make this their priority because it is for the good of Israel,” he added. “This is a win-win for both and a win-win for Christians in the West and the Christians who love Israel.”
In an op-ed for Israel Diaries, he defended the law, claiming, “I believe that Jewish Nationalism declared by Israeli law guarantees her continuing to be a democracy, and it also promises my existence and security as a member of an ethnic-religious minority.” He goes on to say that “It must be emphasized that the Jewish state is based upon the Jews as a People and not on religious law. Therefore, Israel is very different from religious states such as the Islamic Republics that are governed according to Sharia Law.”
Khalloul says the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah” resonates with him as a Christian. “When you say Jewish spirit —what am I as a Christian here? I was developed from Who?” he said. “Jews developed from me as an Aramaic, and then we [as Christians] developed from Judaism,” he said explaining that he believes the Jews are descendants of the ancients Arameans. “The Patriarchs and the Mothers of the Jews were Arameans starting with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” he claims.
“Jesus said, 'I didn’t come to cancel, I came to fulfill,'” Khalloul added. “If I believe this, then every word of Hatikvah is valid.”
While Khalloul has received a lot of support, he says some Arabs and Islamist extremists are not happy about what he's doing. He said his name is often attacked and lies are spread about him, and that on March 17, 2015, a grenade was thrown at his home at night after the election finished.
“I didn’t hear it,” he said. “I woke up and I went to finish logistical issues and I still didn’t see it. My father called me and asked me: ‘Did you hear something at night?’ He said, ‘there are police at your house and the neighbors said they heard a booming.’’”
“Most Christians surrounded by Muslim Arabs fear from threats of attacking them for what they are and what they believe, especially if they are serving the state or in security forces,” Khalloul said. “This is the case in Nazareth and other Galilean towns where Christians living in it as a minority. Even in Lebanon, Christians who revive Syriac Aramaic among Maronites people are facing death threats and being imprisoned from Hezbollah and their allies accusing them falsely collaborating with Israel (the case with Amin Iskander and Roni Doumet).”
Khalloul says they are planning to build the town on 150-200 acres but needs $5 million for developing and planning that will last around seven years. He says he hopes that Christians and Jews around the world will contribute to his cause and make his dream a reality.