With battles raging in Syria, the Arab Spring is no longer the popular hopeful movement it was a year ago. Just as the popular protests for human rights were spreading from Tunisia to Egypt and across the Middle East last year, I visited a Christian family in the West Bank. Their work illustrates why the presence of Christians is so needed throughout the Middle East even as political winds add uncertainty to the ability of this minority group to thrive. Christians, with their ancient roots in the region, provide a unique and essential message of peace and freedom.
While in Bethlehem, I visited the ancestral farm of Daoud Nassar. The land was rich with strands of fruit trees: olive, fig, apple. The family cultivated grapes, almonds, and pine trees. "The land is part of our life," says Nassar, "it's in our blood."
Pressure is intense for the Nassar family and other Christian families in Bethlehem to emigrate to the United States. Israeli restrictions on their land prevent the family from improving it, and they have had to fight in court just to maintain ownership.
"We have no water, no electricity, and no licenses to build," Daoud's brother says. Yet they hold on to hope. "My children will help and hopefully will keep working and taking care of the land." One of Daoud's children replies, "If we knew that the world would end tomorrow, we would go and plant trees."
The Nassar family is committed to staying here--even as many Christians flee--because they feel called to a peacemaking mission. The Christian population in the Middle East, which had been as high as a quarter of the population in the early 20th century is now less than five percent. But the Nassars and other families have a mission to stay, and they formed a ministry, Tent of Nations, that reflects what Daoud's father taught the family, "to live a Christian life and to try to build relationships with others through peace and non-violence." While at odds with Israeli rule and a religious minority among their fellow Arabs, Daoud says, "We refuse to be enemies."
Just a year ago, Christians and Muslims in Egypt prayed and protested side by side for the rights of all Egyptians. Paul-Gordon Chandler, rector of St. John's Church in Cairo, told Prism magazine about a Christian service during the Tahrir Square protests. "Even members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood assisted as they protected the entrances of the square. The Christian leaders conducting the service called on all to pray together and to love each other. These proclamations led the Muslim protestors present to chant Id Wahda, meaning 'One Hand,' which emphasized the unity between Muslims and Christians."
Feelings of unity between Christians and Muslims have a deep if also spotty history throughout the Middle East. Yet, since the heady days in Tahrir Square, attacks on churches and Christians have threatened to undo the unity rediscovered between Christians and Muslims during the protests. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, Islamist parties have gained power and representation, causing uncertainty.
Last year's Arab Spring offered hope that Christians in the Middle East would be able to play a vital role as citizens and to enjoy the full recognition of their rights. The degree to which those demonstrations were a success will be seen in how Christians are treated by the new governments who are now coming into power in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.
But Christians serve as more than a canary in the coal mine. The Christian community plays a small but critical role in the Middle East. Their message of peace and nonviolence, love and not merely tolerance is essential in this volatile region.
The Muslim Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, who is president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, has said that only Jesus Christ--who Muslims regard as a prophet--offers the message that is most needed here. On the NPR program, On Being, he said, Christ's message is "extremely important, very significant, very important for us as Muslims and Jews in this part of the world ... it's the only pure message of peace that exists for us."
Christians in the United States often see this region through the lens of biblical prophecy or national security interests. We would do well to recognize that it was the baby who was born in this region, heralded with shouts of "Peace on Earth," who offers hope for reconciliation. It is those who follow him, dwindling in number and at risk of being marginalized in the change sweeping the region, who offer the message of reconciliation most needed in this tumultuous moment.