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.