Once again, we gather in Bethlehem, from around the world, to celebrate the story of our Lord Jesus’ birth. Our hearts are filled with joy as we hear again the Good News that Christ is born, and God is with us. All earth is hopeful, the Savior comes at last! We have heard the Angel announcing “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
The Christmas story always fills us with joy, and yet we know that all was not calm on that holy night in Bethlehem.
From the very beginning, the story of Jesus is one of difficulty and struggle. He caused controversy even from his conception! And when it came time for Mary and Joseph to register in Bethlehem as the Emperor Augustus had decreed, the difficulties continued. Even though it was nearly time for the baby to be born, the Holy Family could find no place to rest their heads or their weary feet. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7) Today, we must ask the same question: Who has a place in the inn? If Jesus did not, do his followers have a place in the inn called the Middle East?
All of a sudden, it seems politicians, scholars, and theologians have remembered there are Arab and Middle Eastern Christians. The global community has seen the images of churches desecrated and Christians killed or driven out of their villages, and they realize that someone must care for them. Some politicians have even offered to protect them. Immediately we find this new interest everywhere, with conferences, workshops, and seminars all dealing with the question: “What is the future of the Arab and Middle Eastern Christians?” Is there a place in the inn for the followers of Jesus?
Of course, it is very important not to generalize when speaking of Arab Christians today. Our situation in Palestine and Jordan is different from what Christians are facing in Iraq and Syria. Our struggles are totally different from what is going on in Egypt. We would ask the world not to mix all these issues together. But still, taken as a whole, we must face the fact that Christianity is struggling for survival in some countries in the Middle East, in the midst of a wave of extremism, violence, and denial of diversity.
In response to this crisis, there are some who are trying to say that Arab Christians are not really Arabs, they just happen to speak Arabic! In this country, some have put forth the argument that if they call us Arameans instead of Arabs, and if Christians conscript in the army, then they might get equal rights. They want to believe that if they call us Arameans, then we might have a place in the inn.
Others are saying there is no place for Arab Christians in the Middle East. They suggest that this is simply the end of Christianity in the land of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. Christians, they say, must be accommodated in Europe, in so-called “Christian” countries.
But to play with the fate of Arab Christians in this way is not fair to us. We Arab Christians refuse to be a political commodity. We are not here by accident or coincidence. We are not here by invitation of politicians, and we do not stay by permission of authorities. We are here in this part of the world for one reason—because that baby, who had no place in the inn, did find a place in the manger and in a stable. Jesus, denied a birthplace of comfort, chose instead a place among the humble, the lowly, and the forgotten. He alone has given us the right, the full right, to be in this country and in the whole Middle East. Christians have been here for two thousand years. We only need to look to the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2 verse 11, to see that Arabs have always been part of the diverse fabric of Christianity and have joined in proclaiming the Good News with peoples of all nations. We have always considered ourselves to be an integral part of our society. We refuse to be called minorities, and we refuse to be protected by any religion or politician. We continue to play important roles in our respective countries as equal citizens. What would this region be without the Arab and Middle Eastern Christians?
Extremism and terrorism are making our homelands inhospitable, not only for Arab Christians, but also for our neighbors. In response to this crisis, the Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb invited Muslim religious scholars from 120 countries to Cairo at the beginning of this month. This Al-Azhar conference on counter terrorism produced three very important statements.
First, it was stated unequivocally that groups which carry religious flags and commit violent acts in the name of God have polluted the faith. Killing of innocents, atrocities against women, and violation of Holy Places are crimes against humanity, and are absolutely condemned by Islam in word and in context. These groups, by virtue of their heinous deeds, should be considered apostates and outsiders, no longer faithful Muslims.
Secondly, these Muslim scholars and leaders assured the world that Muslims and Christians are brothers and sisters. They have lived together in peace, in various places, throughout the centuries. Diversity has historically been seen as a source of richness and fruitfulness, not a source of fear. For this reason, this conference have even called for equal citizenship with equal rights with equal responsibilities for all citizens in the Arab and Muslim world.
Finally, the Muslim leaders of this conference asked their compatriots, the Arab Christians, to remain rooted in their countries until this wave of extremism passes away. They asked that countries not encourage Christians to emigrate, as this only helps the extremist forces which aim to control our political future, and tear apart our culture and values.
We welcome these three important messages arising from this conference, because our hopes are the same as their hopes. Our struggle is their struggle. Our future is their future. We, too, call for equal citizenship and equal responsibilities, with a democratic constitution, for we are an integral part of our society. We must acknowledge that the threats facing Arab Christians are a danger to all moderates in this region, including our moderate Muslim sisters and brothers. In recent years, it is the moderates who can seem to find no place in the inn called the Middle East.
“Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” It’s worth noting that because Jesus was not welcomed into a home of comfort and privilege, his message was made even stronger. As we ponder the future of Christianity, not only in the Middle East, but across the world, it’s very important for us to remember that the place of Jesus is never in palaces or in seats of power. The manger of Jesus today is found among the displaced, the refugee, the persecuted, and the occupied. The manger of Jesus is with the kidnapped girls in Nigeria; with the families of the victims of the massacre at the school in Peshawar; and with the children of Gaza trying to rebuild their lives. The manger of Jesus is there with victims of terrorism and violence, everywhere in the world. To all those who have been turned away, cast out, denied permission, or treated as second-class citizens, and to all victims of violence and terror, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) Wherever God’s children are sleeping in the cold, fleeing from persecution and violence, or being born as refugees, we find Jesus, proclaiming “He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4:18)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, here in Bethlehem and across the world, if we continue only to worry about the situation, we are only feeding the problem. Worry only gives power to those who doubt the legitimacy of our presence here in the Middle East. Our worry and concern will do nothing to protect our sisters and brothers facing the worst kinds of violence and oppression in Syria and Iraq, for example.
However, the message of Christmas calls us to a second option. We know that our Lord Jesus had very humble beginnings. We know that he faced incredible obstacles just to survive infancy – being born in a stable among the animals, being pursued by Herod, forced to become a refugee, and overcoming many walls –and yet his message is still today changing lives and changing the world. Therefore, when we consider the threats facing Christians in this region today, we must be bold enough to lift up our voices against the powers and principalities working against humanity. Standing with our Lord Jesus among the persecuted and forgotten of the world, together we can raise our voice to challenge injustice and oppression, wherever it is found. And when our sisters and brothers of the global church stand with Arab and Middle Eastern Christians—not just with words and statements, but in action and in truth—then our collective voice will be heard across the world. Then, we can make a change. Claiming our identity as a public church, called to be a witness for the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can ensure a place in the inn for Christians in this region. Firmly rooted here, in the place of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection, we will continue to be instruments of peace, initiators of dialogue, and defenders of human rights, including gender justice. We will continue to be brokers of justice, ministers of reconciliation, and promoters of freedom. We will be apostles of love, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every human being. This is not only our call, but our hope this Christmas.
Another difficult question we face when we talk about a future of peace based on justice is this one: Is there a place for justice in the inn? If you want the truth, the answer is “no.” There is no justice in the inn. The truth is that the ones in the inn on that holy night were the affluent, the well-connected, and the comfortable. The inn is the shelter for the privileged and the powerful, and therefore it also becomes a safe harbor for greed, oppression, and injustice. Often, as we and others discuss how to create peace with justice for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we have high expectations for those in the inn. We look to politicians and leaders and others who sit in comfort, and wonder if they are truly unable to help, or if their narrow political interests make them simply unwilling. We put our trust and our hope in those who promise a path to peace and a plan for the future, but we are tired of paths and processes that lead nowhere, and plans which are quickly forgotten.
There are also those in the inn who are trying to transform this political conflict into a religious or sectarian war. They know very well that moderate Christians, Muslims, and Jews will be the losers, and only the extremists from all religions will thrive and prosper.
And so followers of Jesus are challenged. We are challenged by the babe in the manger to see that the voice crying out for justice may never come from the inn. The birth of peace may never begin in places of comfort and privilege. We are challenged, therefore, to look to the birth of Jesus himself. Jesus, Prince of Peace, was denied a birthplace of comfort, and yet God’s peace was born into the world. God’s peace, justice, and reconciliation will find a way—if not from the halls and corridors of power, then in the stable. If not endorsed from seats of authority, it will be proclaimed from the manger.
Already, we see that people of goodwill and conscience are speaking the truth of what they have seen here in the Holy Land. And we of course notice that some parliaments and states are moving to recognize a Palestinian state. In this act, they are saving the possibility of a two-state solution where Palestinians and Israelis live in their own states with peace, justice, equity, and reconciliation. They are saving the possibility of a Jerusalem shared by three religions and two peoples. This assures us once again that the empire of injustice has no power to destroy our hope.
I continue to hope and to believe that peace based on justice is possible. The grassroots are ready. But what about those in the inn? Are the world politicians ready, or are they afraid for their power and their interests? The babe born in Bethlehem asks them not to play with the fate of his followers. Do not play with the dreams of our children—Palestinian and Israeli, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Our children want peace, not war. They want to hold the future in their hands, not guns. They want a childhood to remember, not a childhood to survive. They want life, and life abundantly.
Jesus, the child born in Bethlehem, cries out from the manger, calling leaders and politicians to boldly seek justice. History will remember those who swim against the tide to build a peace based on justice, guaranteeing a place in the inn not only for Arab Christians, but for other religions and other nations. We continue to believe there is a place for us in this region, just as we believe there is no place for extremism and violence.
This Christmas, from Bethlehem, Palestinian Christians call on the whole world to answer the question: Are you ready to give justice and peace a room in the inn?
We ask you, the whole world, to allow the song of the angels to resound from Bethlehem: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” We are counting on you to ensure the angels’ song becomes a reality for us today in the Holy Land.
Justice is coming. Peace is coming. Liberation is coming—much sooner than we think! This Christmas, our hope is this: Just as our Lord Jesus found a place in the manger, so will peace based on justice, and reconciliation based on forgiveness, find its place in this country, and across the whole Middle East. May this Christmas dream become a reality.
May the peace of Christ, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year in 2015
وكل عام وأنتم وعائلاتكم بألف خير