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A Cohabitation of Religions

By Anna Bigelow

On the first day of every month, thousands of Istanbul residents make their way down a narrow street to the swept stone courtyard of the shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A couple of Turkish lira buys a devotional candle at the entrance, which pilgrims place in sand-filled containers and light as they offer their prayers in the dark interior. Some visitors enter the underground crypt to receive holy water from a small spring, others stand in line to receive the blessings of the Greek Orthodox priest, and still others move around the church visiting the various icons of Mary mother of Jesus, St. George, and other holy figures.

What is startling to realize, especially for a Western observer in the post-9/11 world, is that half of these pilgrims are Christian, the other half Muslim. Far from being unusual, shared devotional spaces like this are common, both in Turkey and elsewhere in the Muslim world. They offer an important reminder that the current vogue for seeing relations between the Christianity and Islam in terms of a "clash of civilizations" is to place a false dichotomy on the past and present, and turn our backs on the lessons of centuries of shared plurality in the region.

At the so-called "First Day of the Month Church," which I visited earlier this year, it is impossible not to appreciate that the Christian man with his hands folded standing next to a Muslim woman with her palms upraised may well have come to the holy place for the same reasons. At these sites, stories about miraculous events circulate within and between social groups, creating webs of meaningful narratives that bind communities together. For example, both Christianity and Islam honor Mary, the mother of Jesus, to whom the First Day of the Month Church is dedicated. From the churches like this in Istanbul to the mountaintop house near Ephesos believed to be Mary's last earthly home, Muslims and Christians pray next to each other for many of the same reasons.

The existence of places where people physically encounter believers from other faiths is an important factor in the establishment and perpetuation of grassroots dialogue and peaceful plural communities. Indeed, institutional religions and interfaith dialogue workers often overlook the effect of these shared places as well - even as their impact on inter-religious relations can be profound. This was born out in a conversation with an official at the Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul about the pervasive phenomenon of Muslims visiting Christian churches. This official used to serve as the parish priest at the First Day of the Month Church and was himself engaged in the dialogue efforts of the Church. In spite of his official role in interfaith conferences, he asserted, "the practical dialogue, the true dialogue, is not the dialogue that happens at these delegations, at these meetings, but it is actually the dialogue that occurs at our parishes or when people mix."

This observation acknowledges that formal dialogues occurring at elite levels generally focus on theology and do not take account of the fact that in countless places around the world, tolerance, pluralism, and coexistence are lived out on a daily basis by people deeply committed to their religions and to the quality of their communities. As an Armenian pilgrim put it, "From God's point of view, everybody is equal. There is only one God and one religion." Though this sentiment may resonate most profoundly inside the First Day of the Month Church and places like it, the encounters facilitated by such places are an important part of a profound and practical dialogue between religious believers that constitutes everyday pluralism.

Anna Bigelow is assistant professor of Islamic Studies at North Carolina State University and currently a Carnegie Scholars Program fellow.

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Comments (4)

suzanneindc Author Profile Page:

On the co-worship of Christian sites, I have been telling people this very same thing for some time now. While visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, I was struck by the Muslim women I saw kneeling before Christ's marble tomb and touching it with loving hands to smell the rosewater. Do Western Christians even know that each year the sme Muslim family is entrusted with the honor by the various Christian denominations to hold the keys to the Church? Again, at the Temptation Monastery in Jericho, I saw Muslims kneel and light candles where it is said Christ stayed for 40 days in the desert. I don't think Westerners understand or fully appreciate, that Muslims revere these Christian sites as well. There are instances of these same occurences with Muslims and people of the Jewish faith - however, if these sites are located in Israel these are more tense moments of co-worship due to obvious political issues. Thank you for putting this blog out.

sbruce4 Author Profile Page:

From Zenith.org. Read this:

The high-profile baptism of Magdi Cristiano Allam at the Easter Vigil ceremony presided over last year by Benedict XVI has a story behind it. According to Allam himself, his conversion journey was possible because of great Christian witnesses.

One of the directors of the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, he spoke about his conversion and the experiences that led to it when he met with university students of Rome last week to tell the story of his path to Catholicism.

A physicist's viewpoint

sbruce4 Author Profile Page:

From Zenith.org: Islamists can also convert to cristianity. Read this:
The high-profile baptism of Magdi Cristiano Allam at the Easter Vigil ceremony presided over last year by Benedict XVI has a story behind it. According to Allam himself, his conversion journey was possible because of great Christian witnesses.

One of the directors of the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, he spoke about his conversion and the experiences that led to it when he met with university students of Rome last week to tell the story of his path to Catholicism.

Maryann261 Author Profile Page:

I doubt Islam could peacefully co-exist with any relgion. Islamic Fundamentalists only know violence as a way to spread their violent message. One only has to take a look at the Koran to see how much violence is accepted.

As far as I am concerned, Islam is barbaric, totally subjugates women (animals are treated better), and I will never forget the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in my country, an attack that killed and maimed thousands of my fellow countrywomen and men, done in the name of Islam for Allah. That was the second attack in the U.S. by Islamists, the first bombing of the WTC in February 1993. How many people have been killed or maimed in the modern age in the name of Islam? For anyone who wants peace and respect for individuals, Islam is totally incompatible. I cannot even fathom how Islam practiced as it is could ever be able to co-exist with Western values.

No other major religion is calling for killing people, only Islam is. If Islam has a bad image in some people's minds, it may have to do with how it is practiced and the devastating actions that have taken place to spread the word. This is one "relgion" the world can definitely do without.


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