JAMHOUR, Lebanon — Five times a day, Sheikh Mohammad Nokkari kneels and prays to the Almighty, and lately he has been offering a prayer of thanksgiving for a recent physical healing.
Nokkari apparently was inexplicably healed from Hepatitis C. Four times his doctors asked for laboratory tests, unwilling to admit that the virus had simply disappeared. They finally had to accept that something had happened that science could not explain.
But Nokkari knows he was healed by God, whose voice he heard in a dream ordering him three times, “Ask me to heal you.”
In his early 50s, Nokkari is assistant head of the Mufti Mohammad Kabbani, the higher religious authority of the Sunni Muslims in Lebanon. His devotion to the Virgin Mary, or Sittna Maryam, as Muslims call Our Lady, is well known. “The sûrah (Quranic chapter) about Maryam is recited by all faithful Muslims every Friday at the mosque,” he said, when asked if his devotion to Mary is an exception.
For Muslims, in fact, Mary also is called “Our Lady of the Universe.” Just as she is with Christians, for Muslims she is a model of purity, humility and obedience to God.
Nokkari has been dreaming of a common Marian feast for Muslims and Christians for some years now. He brought it up recently on the feast of the Annunciation (March 25), during a common prayer ceremony at a Jesuit church in Jamhour, on the outskirts of Beirut. Christians and Muslims from all denominations in Lebanon participated in the event.
The idea that Nokkari is bringing this up is not unfamiliar to Lebanese. The fact is that Christians and Muslims in Lebanon are earnestly looking for ways to get together, in an effort to unite more as a nation. This desire for closeness has led a few Christian groups to promote the common religious inheritance as a means to reach this end.
For instance, they organize joint visits to Christian shrines, mostly Marian. Many Muslims of different denominations visit Christian shrines in search of physical healing or to fulfill vows.
The ceremony held March 25 was organized by the College of Notre Dame de Jamhour’s alumni association, which counts both Christians and Muslims as members. Muslim chants alternated with Christian canticles, as well as prayers, readings and slide projections. The Muslim former prime minister of Lebanon, Nagib Mikati, funded all printed material for the ceremony. The well-respected Greek Orthodox Bishop George Khodr, of Mount Lebanon, approved.
The alumni were so impressed by the warmth and authenticity of the gathering that they decided to make the event an annual tradition. A leading speaker from the well-known Al-Azhar University, supreme authority of Sunni Muslims in Egypt, Khaled al-Jundi, who was invited to attend, pledged to talk about it back home and organize something similar in Cairo.
One who was particularly involved in the ceremony was Nokkari, who rejoiced as he found new acceptance for his proposal about a common religious commemoration to both Muslims and Christians among attendents.
“Nothing prevents a Muslim from entering a church, nor a Christian from entering a mosque,” he insists, adding that the mufti has given him the green light to look into this idea of a bi-religious event and push it farther. This idea is widely accepted, he insisted, both by the Islamic hierarchy and common believers within Muslim circles, but needs to be developed further.
Significantly, the mufti of the Sunni Muslims made a point after this event to address his greeting to Christians in Lebanon on the occasion of Easter. Traditionally, he does it only on Christmas.
Nokkari’s pledge came to the ear of Father Wissam Abu Nasser, secretary general of the Marian Society for the Middle East, the regional branch of the Pontifical International Marian Academy founded by Blessed Pope John XXIII. This society is devoted, he said, “to research on Mary and the deepening of ecumenical as well as interreligious dialogue on Mary.”
Father Wissam, a middle-aged priest who belongs to the Maronite Marian Order, is actively preparing the first Marian congress in the Middle East, to be held in Lebanon Oct. 19-21. This event will be examining all dimensions of Mariology both in Western and Eastern theology. The topic of a common national religious feast will figure on its fringe.
“After all,” said the priest, “we celebrate in common so many civic feasts: Flag Day, Tree Day, Labor Day. Why not a religious one?”
According to Father Wissam’s thinking, what makes it possible to bring Christians and Muslims into a common devotional celebration of the Annunciation is that we’re dealing with facts accepted by all. These facts are easy to bring into interreligious dialogue, where one can spotlight devotion rather than theology.
Still, Father Wissam is aware that, if not properly introduced, this “innovative work” could be found speculative and theologically confusing. He believes it should be thoroughly discussed, on the hierarchical level, and studied as a topic by itself. Quoting the Epistles, he cautions that “Paul plants and Apollo waters, but only God gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7).
Devotion vs. Theology
What does Thamar Nasrabedian, an Armenian orthodox scholar and, according to Father Wissam, the only Marian theologian in the Middle East, think of this issue?
“The problem is that since Muslims don’t celebrate the Annunciation, will the religious authorities of both faiths accept such a feast to be introduced?” she wondered.
“It will be a kind of dialogue around Mary between Christians and Muslims,” Nasrabedian said. “She would be a unifying principle for all the communities in the land.”
But, she adds, “This feast will be more devotional than theological.”
“Well, this whole thing is a little bit idyllic, but if we want to open up to Muslims, we have to put ourselves in their range, without compromising on theology; and with the Annunciation, it is possible,” Nasrabedian concluded.
Fully aware of the obstacles that both sides might present, laypeople involved in Church work in Lebanon recall the tumult that arose within Catholicity when Pope John Paul II planned the Assisi interfaith day of prayer. It was brushed away by the Pope with a simple statement: “We are not praying together, we are together to pray”, he said.
Holding on to his dream, Nokkari smiled and said: “I’d like to dedicate this effort to John Paul II. It would be the concrete realization of what he said about our land: ‘Lebanon is more than a country, it is a message!’”
Fady Noun is based in Beirut.