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Middle East

Jesus, Christmas, and the Arab Spring


A Letter from Nazareth

Arab Christians approach Christmas this year with feelings of intense fear just like the shepherds were as the angel appeared to them 2000 years ago.

Christmas intersects this year with the first anniversary of the Arab spring that swept the Arab world, bringing enormous change across North Africa and the Middle East.

Only one of the Arab countries, where regime changed occurred, has regained substantial stability and some measure of freedom after elections (Tunisia). Others are in the labor of the change (Egypt, Libya, and Yemen) and another is struggling with a bloody conflict with daily killings (Syria).

Are there any signs of joy that will cast out fear for Arab Christians living in the Middle East?

In the short term, fear has the upper hand.

The term "Arab Christian" is viewed by some as an enigma. However, Arabs were represented in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:11). Arabs accepted the new faith from the beginning and Arab Christian tribes thrived in the Middle East from the earliest days of Christianity.

What about Christians today in the city of Jesus' death and resurrection (Jerusalem), the land of his refuge as a baby (Egypt), the place of Paul's conversion (Damascus), or the land from where the Israelites' passed to the promised land (Jordan)?

Arab Christians have been living in the Middle East among Muslims and Jews as a struggling minority of second class citizens for generations.

The new Pew survey of global Christianity reveals what Arab Christians experience every day. North Africa and the Middle East, a region that was once majority Christian, now has 1 percent of the world's 2.18 billion Christians. The survey counts 12.8 million Christians in total, 4 percent of the overall regional population.

The Arab Spring has not changed this basic fact of life for Christians here.

The struggle has led multitudes of Arab Christians to migrate from the troubled region to the four corners of the earth, bringing the cradle of Christianity to the brink of being emptied of Christians.

Initially, the Arab spring promised positive change for all. Arab Christians cautiously supported the upheavals hoping for genuine democracy to establish justice, equality, and bring an end to persecution and oppression.

What Christian would not support freedom for deprived human beings since the desire for freedom is biblical and divinely given?

The problem was a perception that democracy is merely free elections. But important elements of democracy, such as the rule of law and basic human rights, including religious freedom, are essential.

Unfortunately, one election cannot fully institute democracy in these Arab countries, or any country, overnight.

In light of this political reality, Arab Christians have become even more vulnerable to attacks or caught in the crossfire.

Under the old regimes, stability brought status quo and a certain degree of freedom. The transition period brought uncertainty. Minorities were exposed to becoming targets of violent mobs, frustrated army forces, or fanatic Islamic groups.

The power vacuum that emerged as a result of the fall of dictators had to be filled. The only political parties that could get organized in the transition were Islamic groups (Muslim Brotherhood, for example).

They had the infrastructure of the Muslim community life surrounding the mosques. They had their dream of retrieval of the great Islamic empire. They also had the inspiration of Muslim fundamental parties in other countries.

As a result, we have seen success for the Islamist movements in the Arab countries, first in Tunisia and recently in Egypt. This development overshadows any evaluation of the Arab spring.

But the good news is that the democratic process is still gathering momentum in the Arab world. This will in time lead to reform across the board. It will also lead to evolving secular parties that will call for freedom of religion.

I believe a new culture of democracy and freedom will eventually arrive. But the questions remain: What will the cost to Arab Christians be? Will they have the strength to stand steadfast as living witnesses until the Arab countries exercise true democracy?

In the midst of the darkness, the angel asked the shepherds not to fear. After meeting the baby Jesus in the manger, the shepherds who had feared earlier rejoiced and glorified God.

Will Arab Christians do the same and by focusing on Jesus so their fear be transformed to joy?

They will, but hopefully not alone. At Christmas, the whole earth rejoices.

Botrus Mansour, author of "When Your Neighbor is The Savior," is general director of the Nazareth Baptist School.

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