The Pope and the Mufti

 — May 19, 200119 mai 2001

The BBC’s Rome correspondent was in Syria during Pope John Paul’s pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Paul. The Pope’s hosts were correct, as David Willey shows, in claiming that he had come to the cradle of the world’s civilisations and religions.

Pope John Paul, who celebrated his eighty-first birthday this week, is a man in a hurry. In the twilight days of his long papacy, he is expanding the perspective of his by now traditional pastoral visits around the world and he is laying down markers for the future. These concern the future relations of the Roman Catholic Church both with the separated Orthodox Christian Churches, and with the other monotheistic religions, Islam and Judaism.

Hence the first-ever visit this month by a pope to a mosque, the impressive Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Twenty years ago it would have been inconceivable that a pope from Rome should remove his shoes, put on white slippers and traverse one of the great Holy Places of Islam for a meeting with the Grand Mufti and other clerics in the courtyard of the mosque.

What was surprising about the visit was its informality. Two hours beforehand the mosque was still full of Muslim men, women and children, praying, strolling, sleeping in odd corners; many foreign visitors were also wandering around, holding their shoes in their hands, gaping at this vast and ancient building, which was first a pagan temple, then a Christian basilica, and for the past 1,400 years a mosque.

There was no sign of any obtrusive security arrangements. True, the mosque was evacuated when the Pope was about to arrive, but the whole papal visit took place in an atmosphere of relaxed and friendly curiosity about this Man in White whose image is even currently being used by the Syrian Tourist Department to promote tourism “on the road to Damascus.”

The Pope was driven to the mosque through the bazaar of Straight Street, the original Roman main street of the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, older than Athens, older than Thebes, older than Rome. It brought to mind that wonderful Mark Twain quotation from Innocents Abroad: “The street called Straight is straighter than a corkscrew, but not as straight as a rainbow. St Luke is careful not to commit himself; he does not say it is the street which is straight, but ‘the street which is called Straight’. It is the only facetious remark in the Bible, I believe.”

Syria’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, who is eight years older than the Pope but looks considerably more sprightly, welcomed the pontiff with a tiny cup of Turkish coffee, and then accompanied him to the tomb where reputedly the head of St John the Baptist lies, a marble sarcophagus placed inside a shrine right in the middle of the central nave of the former Christian basilica. St John, known in Arabic as Yahya, is still venerated by members of both faiths.

The Pope paused a moment in prayer, just like the other pilgrims I had been watching earlier in the day, then went outside to deliver his speech. There was no joint prayer. The Grand Mufti began predictably enough. “Honourable Guest, we have been living in this blessed land as Muslims and Christians for centuries, sharing its gifts … confronting our enemies and shedding our blood as Muslims and Christians on this soil. Our oppressive enemies have left but we have remained. Our fraternity with mosques hugging the churches is clear-cut evidence of our unity of faith.”

But then the Mufti chose to attack “savage massacres perpetrated against the children of Christ and Muhammad in Palestine.” He asked for support against Israel’s “atrocious aggression,” just as President Bashar al-Assad had found it necessary to launch a vitriolic attack upon the Jewish state in his speech of welcome to the Pope at the airport.

The Pope again refused to be drawn into the political arena. He had made his political gesture by visiting Israel last year. He simply urged that the young of both religions be taught “not to misuse religion to promote or justify hatred and violence.”

Fresh from seeking reconciliation with the Orthodox world and asking forgiveness in Athens from the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos for past sins of Catholics against the Orthodox, the Pope also called in Damascus for reconciliation among many small Christian Churches which have coexisted happily there for centuries.

At a meeting in the Greek-Catholic Melkite cathedral attended both by Orthodox and Catholic young people dressed in jeans and T-shirts, there were cries to the pastors that the divisions within the Church are a scandal. At one point, a young woman grabbed a microphone and asked: “Do you want the unity of the Church?”

The “Yes” was deafening. The Pope does not often hear the spontaneous voice of his people so clearly.

Repeating the Pope’s proposal to celebrate Easter on the same date in future, the Greek-Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Laham proposed: “We Greek-Catholics say to our Orthodox brothers: we want to celebrate Easter, together and forever. We want our generation to see perfect communion, without the need for our children to wait for it.” Later the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim of Antioch rose spontaneously to embrace Gregory and the young people applauded this goodwill gesture.

The Pope’s mind is already concentrated upon his controversial journey next month to Ukraine where he has been told both by a Ukrainian metropolitan and by leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church that his presence will not be welcome. The Orthodox Patriarchate in Moscow organised a public demonstration against the visit this week.

In Syria relations between those Churches that recognise the Pope’s supremacy and those that do not are peaceful; there are no parallels to the clashes between Orthodox and Greek-Catholics in Ukraine, caused by the reoccupation by Greek-Catholics of churches which had been theirs, but were taken over by the Orthodox after Stalin’s attempts to destroy the Greek Catholic Church in western Ukraine in 1942. One of the sights of Damascus that the Pope did not see was the reconstruction in the Syrian National Museum of the Jewish synagogue from Doura Europos on the Euphrates river. The synagogue one of the world’s treasures of religious art dates from the middle of the third century AD and is frescoed with Old Testament scenes. The unique figurative paintings were discovered in 1932. Archaeologists believe the synagogue was filled in with earth a few years after it was built, to protect it from a Persian invasion. Its defenders unwittingly preserved these paintings for posterity by protecting them from rain and sunlight.

The synagogue is unsignposted to the trickle of foreigners who visit the Damascus museum, but is a powerful reminder that the platitudes about Syria being the cradle of the world’s civilisations and religions uttered by the Pope’s hosts are all perfectly true. Where better could the Pope have chosen to make these “giant steps with the aid of his walking stick” as the Italian bishops’ newspaper glowingly described his Middle East pilgrimage?

I had a different reminder of historic religious links those between Syria and Rome after the Pope took off for Malta to continue his pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Paul. Then I drove 100 kilometres south of Damascus near Syria’s border with Jordan to see the ruins of Bostra, the capital of Roman Arabia, conquered by Trajan.

Bostra has the most complete ancient Roman theatre in existence today, a vast stone hemicycle capable of seating 10,000 spectators. What I found particularly interesting was the way in which there are a few thousand people living in the ruins of this former Roman garrison town of perhaps 80,000 inhabitants. They have simply recycled Roman building stones, making new houses for themselves, rather like Lego blocks.

Here I was reminded by these stones of antiquity not only of just how far east the Roman empire extended in its heyday, but also how this was for several centuries, until the Arab invasion, an important Christian centre.

Here, I saw the archaeological evidence for the pre-Muslim Christian life of this part of Syria, on the edge of the Arabian desert, when a Nestorian monk called Bahira preached Christianity to the inhabitants of Bostra. Visitors are shown a small mosque (also built from Roman Lego bricks) to commemorate the spot where Muhammad’s camel is supposed to have left a mark in the rock. Muslim traditions say the Prophet travelled to Bostra with a caravan from Mecca and first heard about the Christian religion from the monk Bahira, whose Christian name is given variously as Sergius or Georgius.

The Pope has done an imaginative service to his Church through this pilgrimage in the footsteps of Paul. He has caused Catholics to reflect on the role both of Jews and, later, of Muslims in the early history of the Church, following St Paul’s crucial journeys after his conversion on the road to Damascus.

Posted: May 19, 2001 • Permanent link:
Categories: TabletIn this article: Christian, Christianity, Islam, John Paul II, Orthodox
Transmis : 19 mai 2001 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : TabletDans cet article : Christian, Christianity, Islam, John Paul II, Orthodox

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