Can religion play a role in finding a way back to the path toward peace in the Middle East?

Ancient Roman paving stones inside Jerusalem’s Old City that have been worn smooth over time mark the path where tradition holds that Jesus carried the cross. It is called the Way of Sorrow, or the “Via Dolorosa.”

Today along that path, a procession of Christians, including Palestinians who are members of the dwindling Christian minority in Palestine, will mark Good Friday, the most somber day on the Christian calendar. For the faithful, it is a day of reflection on the events in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago that led to Jesus being betrayed by one of his disciples, sentenced to death under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate and crucified and buried. The sorrow of Good Friday is followed three days later by the joyous celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter Sunday and the Christian belief that the crucifixion prepared the way for salvation for all of humanity.

While Christians observe their Holy Week, Muslims are fasting for the holy month of Ramadan and Jews are preparing for the coming of Passover celebrations next month. Springtime in Jerusalem, when these three faiths observe these important days on their respective calendars, can be a powerfully spiritual experience and a time of great hope in a land wracked by decades of conflict.

This year with the war in Gaza raging it will be very hard to feel that spirituality or to experience any hope. Not with some 150 Israeli hostages still being held by Hamas in the tunnels beneath Gaza after the terrorist organization’s brazen attack inside Israel on October 7 that killed 1,200 people. Not with the punishing Israeli military retaliation and the waves of indiscriminate airstrikes that have now killed more than 32,000 Palestinian civilians. Not with the Gaza strip reduced to rubble and some 2 million Palestinians displaced from their homes. Not with international aid agencies saying that six months of war and an effective blockade by Israel have left Gaza on the brink of famine. And not with this week’s UN resolution calling for a cease fire going unmet. Not with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that Israeli forces will apply more military pressure with an imminent invasion of Rafah in the southern end of the Gaza Strip.

But even under the dark cloud of war, the common themes that tie these three religious observances together are still there: sacrifice, renewal, and spiritual deliverance as a gift from God.

Indeed, the ways in which the message of these three faiths are woven together are present every Friday in Jerusalem. There is a moment in time around midday and an intersection of narrow warrens in the Old City where the three faiths are physically crossing paths. Christians are walking the “Way of Sorrow” and praying at the 14 stations of the cross. At that same time on Fridays, Jews in prayer shawls are usually rushing to the Western Wall for prayers in the lead-up to Shabbat. The Western Wall with its huge Herodian stones marks the most sacred land in Judaism, and all that remains after the destruction of the Second Temple, which has lain at the heart of the longing of Jews to return to what they believe is the Promised Land, where they arrived after wandering in the desert led by Moses, an exodus out of Egypt which is at the heart of the meaning of Passover.

Also on Friday at noon, Muslims with prayer rugs rush for the traditional Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Ramadan marks a time of fasting and renewal of spirituality and culminates by marking the time in which the Quran, the Muslim holy book, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

It has always struck me just how powerful this overlapping time of faith is for all three Abrahamic faiths, and it is just tragic to see how this opportunity for connection is overlooked as the violence escalates once again in the Middle East.

My family lived there for nearly five years when I was the Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe. During our time there, we lived in a place in between the two sides and their overlapping sacred space, a rare and vanishing space in the middle of this conflict with friends and colleagues on both sides of the divide.

Today living in between seems an impossibility. The Holy Land has reached an unprecedented moment of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in their decades-long struggle. I’ve covered the story since 1990, when I was in the region to cover the first Gulf War, and witnessed some of the clashes between Israelis and Palestinians that defined the First Intifada, or uprising, in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. I was the Globe’s bureau chief when the second intifada erupted in the fall of 2000, and through the year ahead when the violence escalated. Back then the intifada simmered until at least 2005, and some 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in the clashes and the spate of bus bombings that were carried out by Hamas. It was horrific and gruesome and scary to live there during the violence, but the hope that the two sides might return to the historic Oslo peace accords signed in 1993 was always there in the balance. Now the peace process and its goal of two states living peacefully side by side feels completely washed away.

Just think about the difference in the levels of violence now.. Even the Middle East wars in Israel — the 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six-Day War — did not claim a fraction of as many lives as the indiscriminate bombing we are seeing now in Gaza. Sadly, the history of the Middle East is measured in bloodshed.

So is it possible that the observances of Ramadan, Easter and Passover can offer some kind of a spiritual roadmap that might lead the two sides back toward peace? Certainly, there is an inherent message of peace that exists in all three of these faiths that are so connected to the Holy Land. And those messages, if heeded, could provide solid ground upon which the peace process can be rebuilt.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter understood this deeply as an evangelical Christian who really knew his Bible, and he brought the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and Israeli leader Menachem Begin together to sign the historic Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, which is still holding to this day, albeit frayed and strained by the recent violence. The hard part these days is that extremists within all three faiths have the loudest voices, and are succeeding in dividing us all and undercutting interfaith dialogue. Trust among faiths has been blown apart by the extremist Islamist militants, the heavily armed Jewish settlers, and the powerful Christian evangelical lobby. The role of evangelical Christians in shaping US policy in the Middle East, particularly a growing movement with an apocalyptic theology known as Christian Zionism, is a complex, layered story that we covered in a 2019 series and a season of our GroundTruth podcast titled “The End of Days.”

Extremism in religion has done a great deal to leave Israelis and Palestinians, deeply divided, but as most observers would agree the heart of the conflict is not really about religion. It is ultimately a conflict about land, and its resolution will have to be about finding a formula to share the land that all three faiths claim as holy. Christians are, sadly, a dwindling presence in the land where their faith was born. But the indigenous Christians, who are Palestinians living in Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem, still represent approximately 2 percent of the overall population, and despite their diminished numbers they have a quiet, but potentially resonant, voice that deserves to be heard, a point of view that is expressed in my book, The Body and The Blood: The Middle East’s Vanishing Christians and the Possibilities for Peace.

So what is the way forward to return to the path to peace?

To most political analysts, the only way forward is to try to get back to the specific requirements within the peace agreement, which calls for both the Israelis and Palestinians to recognize their legitimate rights to share the land as two separate states. Obviously, this will be very difficult, and it will certainly take a very long time. But it is still possible, and it will ultimately require not just political leadership but faith leaders to bring the people from both sides to see this as the only path forward, and to guide them down that path. The U.S. and Christian leaders around the world can and must play a role in this leadership, but it is truly only the people — Palestinian and Israeli, and members of all three faiths — who can take the steps required to find the way back to the path toward peace.

A resonant voice for peace in the Holy Land is the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian and theologian from Bethlehem and a Lutheran minister who now runs a small college. I got to know Raheb and he was always one of my first stops when I would return to the Holy Land to cover different chapters of history as it has unfolded in the last 30 years. Raheb has just released a YouTube video that I found online in which he articulates his hope for this Easter with these words:

“Imagine the impact we could make if from every corner of the world, our collective call for action , for a cease fire, for a liberation of all captives becomes impossible to ignore. May we receive during this Easter time the power to leave behind our fears and complicity and become agents of transformation. Let this Easter mark not just a day of celebration but a day of mobilization, a day we choose to be catalysts for hope and action for a long lasting and just peace.”