The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has taken center stage in the incredible drama in the Middle East.

Some 70 Palestinian Christian clergy together with approximately 200 Palestinian soldiers are barricaded in this ancient sanctuary. They are surrounded by thousands of Israeli soldiers.

Ironically, it was the Hebrew ancestors of the Jews who introduced the use of cities and sanctuaries as places of refuge.

The Bible tells of Absolom and Joab who led a rebellion against King Solomon; when it failed and Absolom was killed, Joab feared for his life and sought safety from retaliation by clutching the altar.

The word “sanctuary” has become synonymous with a place of refuge from danger.

It was such a place that Samir Ibrahim Salman sought when he left his home and ran the 100 yards to the Church of the Nativity. As caretaker and bellringer for 30 years, he knew his place. What he didn’t know was that he would be shot dead halfway between his home and his church.

The first church constructed on this site in Bethlehem dates to the fifth century. After his Christian conversion, the Roman Emperor Constantine sent his mother to the Holy Land to identify the holy sites and initiate the building of sanctuaries.

Today, the church in Bethlehem and many other holy sites are under the jurisdiction of the Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church.

The minister general of that order, Giacomo Bini, defended those who have fled to the church for safety, saying, “We have nothing to lose and no interests to defend except that of peace, which is everyone’s right.”

The Franciscan order was founded by Francis of Assisi, known throughout the world for his practice of peaceable living. The famous prayer attributed (erroneously) to Francis begins with the words, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

“Today, we are ready,” Bini continued, “to give a Franciscan habit (cloak) of peace to all so that they become instruments of peace.”

This attention to the Christian population in the Middle East marks a striking departure from the Muslim-driven orientation of most news and commentary.

For more than a year the eyes of the world have watched the uprising in Israel, the attack on the World Trade Center, the war in Afghanistan, and now the offensive into the West Bank. We have come to regard this as a continuing episode in that “clash of cultures” between the Islamic East and the Christian West.

It has created an enormous interest in the faith and practice of Islam, and rightly so.

But the camera shift from fanatical Muslims to fearful Christians has brought into the spotlight the tenuous plight of a minority within a minority. Arab Christians live in a Muslim culture within a Jewish state.

There are 50,000 Christians in the West Bank and Gaza; essentially all are Arabs, organized into Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant (primarily Lutheran) churches. They are thoroughly integrated into Arab society.

Although they comprise only 2 percent of the Arab population, they constitute 10 percent of the leadership, including important positions in the Palestine Liberation Organization. President Arafat’s wife is a Christian.

There are another 120,000 Christians in Israel, holding Israeli citizenship. Most of these are Arab as well; the rest are Russian, strangely enough, who entered Israel along with thousands of Jews when, in the last days of the Soviet Union, restrictions on emigration were lifted. It is estimated that there are 30 Russian-speaking evangelical (mostly Baptist and Pentecostal) congregations in Israel.

So it is that nearly 200,000 area residents, those who claim identification with the Christian presence in the region, are now at the center of conflict. Perhaps they will have opportunity, given their unique ties to both Muslims and Christians, to become a significant catalyst for peace in the days and weeks ahead.

Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.

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