Conflict is nothing new in the Middle East. Perhaps it's the relentlessness of the 24-hour news cycle or the pervasive reach of social media that keeps the world literally at our fingertips, but events of the last few weeks give the impression that the troubled region of my birth has never been more bloody or violent.
As an Arab-Australian it's difficult to watch the events in Syria, Iraq and Gaza without a sense of guilt and shame. To outside eyes, it must appear that the Middle East is driven by hatred and bloodlust. One popular Egyptian blogger took to his Facebook page to proclaim that he is 'actually bored with the insanity of the Middle East. Israel has gone insane, Assad was always insane, ISIS is making a state out of insanity, and Egypt, well, I am not really sure how to even describe it anymore.'
Speaking of ISIS, in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, a single letter — the Arabic nun for 'Nazarene', an Islamic reference to Christians — was painted in red on the front doors of local Christians, leaving the small but long-established community reeling. Informed by the self-appointed theocrats ISIS that they could either leave, convert to Islam, or pay the heavy tax once imposed on religious minorities in Muslim states, the vast majority of Christians chose to flee.
And with that single act of intolerant cruelty, a 2000-year connection to the land was broken. As hundreds of Muslims rallied alongside Christians in Baghdad, declaring 'I am Iraqi, I am Christian', many of the refugees headed south and were able to find safe havens both in the homes of Muslims and in some of the holiest shrines of Shia Islam, including the shrine of Imam Ali.
Ali was the fourth caliph, the prophet Mohammed's son-in-law, and the founding namesake of the Shia strain of Islam, adherents of whom regard him as the true successor to the prophet. As well as at least 100 Christian families, the shrines are offering to house any others fleeing from ISIS violence, including Sunnis and Kurds.
Even as this tragedy was unfolding in Iraq, Israeli forces began targeting mosques in that country's ongoing pounding of the Gaza Strip. Like most Palestinian buildings it has struck, Israel claims they were being used by Hamas, either to store weapons or as hideouts.
One by one they were razed to the ground just as Ramadan was drawing to a close. And in a bittersweet turnaround, it was now Muslims who found a temporary safe haven in Gaza's churches. One young Palestinian, Mohammed Khalef, said of the experience: 'They let us pray. It's changed my view of Christians — I didn't really know any before, but they've become our brothers ... We (Muslims) prayed together ... Here, the love between Muslims and Christians has grown.'
This is the Middle East, at once unconscionably cruel and unbearably kind.
Of course, this is not the first time that persecuted members of one Middle Eastern faith have sought and found safety in the places of worship of those that are often cast as their sworn enemies.
In 2011, just weeks after a bomb ripped apart a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria Egypt, killing 23 worshipers, Christians joined hands in the famed Tahrir Square during the revolution that eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak. Forming a protective cordon, they made a circle around their fellow protestors, Muslims who had to take time out for their Friday prayers.
Days later, it was the Christians' turn for worship, and Muslims surrounded them as they celebrated Sunday mass. 'In the name of Jesus and Mohammed, we unify our ranks,' the Rev. Ihab al-Kharat said in his sermon on that day. When he finished, the crowd held up both a Quran and a cross, as they chanted in union, 'We are one.'
This spirit of protection goes all the way back to the time of Imam Ali. The story goes that Ali's brother Jaffar led a group of Muslim travellers through hostile territory, before finding refuge in predominantly Christian Abyssinia.
Safe havens for Palestinians are becoming fewer each day that Operation Protective Edge continues. Even UN-run shelters are not safe, and now, as I write this, there are reports that Israel has warned the Holy Family Latin Church in Gaza to evacuate. According to the church, it has 27 handicapped children, and nine elderly ladies who are not mobile, in its care. The children had recently been moved into the church because their care home, the House of Christ, was in an area earlier targeted by Israeli forces.
In his aforementioned Facebook diatribe against the Middle East, Mahmoud Salem jokingly implores those without families and obligations to leave the Middle East for their own good, to 'enjoy some peace and beauty' before they die. But for the people of Gaza, even that is not an option, thanks to the Israeli blockade.
And as the bombs rain down on what is surely the most wretched slice of land on earth, I wonder where the people will find comfort and safety when there are neither mosques nor churches left standing in the Gaza Strip.
Ruby Hamad is a Sydney writer and associate editor of progressive feminist website The Scavenger. She blogs at rubyhamad.wordpress.com and tweets @rubyhamad.