When a solitary spark suddenly takes fire from the ashes and bursts into flame – it supplies us with a figure or symbol of the triumph of life over death … and a symbol which is shared by civilisations across the world, both old and new.

For the ancient Greeks, this new life took the shape of the mythical bird, the phoenix, rising from the ashes; and on Easter Eve in our own darkened churches, the flame of the Easter fire symbolizes Jesus resurrecting from the tomb.

Indeed, the triumph of life over death can be symbolized for us every time some stunning victory of Good over Evil comes to our attention.

And that is why – having written about some manifestations of pure evil inflicted on Christians in today’s Middle East – I now wish to recall by contrast some manifestations of stunning goodness shown towards Christians by followers of Islam.

When a bus was ambushed in northern Kenya over a year ago, 28 passengers who were identified as Christians were shot. Then recently another bus was ambushed. This time, however, Muslim women lent their veils to camouflage the twelve Christians on board – and roundly told the gunmen that they should either kill these women themselves also, or just leave everyone on the bus alone.

Sacrificing life – so others can live

Christians in northern Nigeria have experienced the bombing of their churches. But this year in one city 150 Muslim youths and imams (religious leaders) joined Christians for a Christmas Day service – while other Muslims stood guard outside.

Indeed, this tradition of watching out for one another’s safety during persecution, had already taken root in Egypt: Muslims and Christians had marched together under the flags of the Cross and the Crescent.

I have already told the story of Christians rounded up on the shore-line to be massacred: A Muslim man comes along and says that one of the men ear-marked for death is a friend of his: if they’re going to kill the friend, then they should kill this Muslim man himself … And they did.

It is when under huge stress – especially the threat of death – that the very best of human spirit manifests itself. And wherever the very best of human spirit is in evidence, we can say that nothing less the God’s own spirit is present there also – this God who, according to our Christian faith, sent Jesus and his Spirit into our world. A power is at work, which puts paid to the power of evil and death.

I recently heard a talk from a Syrian fellow-Jesuit. He gave details of how most religions are represented in Syria – but of how each one is divided into sub-groupings (the population of whole villages occasionally dividing along religious lines).

But I was impressed to hear him say that, at local level, there were no villages where the Syrian Christians – up to recently, 10% to 15% of the population – would be ostracized … Somehow the Christians had access to a power-of-spirit which raised them above the dynamic of division.

‘Human shield’ – against persecuting Christians!

As I wrote lately, to give religion itself a role in the continuation or incitement towards division is always a work of Evil in the world. To counteract this is, I believe, the reason for an initiative of Pope Francis last autumn which might otherwise look extreme and foolhardy.

His personal safety on the journey to the Central African Republic could not be assured; but, arrived there, he took an even greater risk.

In the city of Bangui, he ventured into a stronghold where Muslims had taken refuge from persecution by Christians. There he spoke to the imams – and then invited their leader to ride beside him in the Popemobile. Somehow, the Pope seemed to believe, Good just had to be seen to triumph over Evil.

When he visited Albania, what stood out for Pope Francis was the experience of a nation where everyday good relations between Muslims and Christians were simply taken for granted (as they had been for 1 ½ thousand years in Syria).

There had been no attempt to “radicalize” one ‘side’ and so there was no situation in need of being ‘normalized’. Indeed – as I mentioned before – in many parts of the Balkan countries pregnant women will band together, go and visit their various places of worship, and pray for a safe delivery.

Back in mainland Europe, on Christmas Eve as French Christians in some cities held their ceremonies – local associations of Muslims showed solidarity, by forming symbolic security-patrols around the churches.

Every time and everywhere Evil is over-powered by Good, and element of ‘resurrection’ has occurred. And, using the terms of their own faith, people may greet one another with the poet’s wish: “May Christ Easter in you !”