This article is a bit old but I thought it spoke so eloquently of Our Lady and a call for peace in a troubled land that we could do well to reflect on it.
IN THE shimmering air of an arid mountainside, a graceful animal can suddenly speak with a human voice of succour; and a beast that seems to offer its own flesh to a hungry traveller turns out instead to be a provider of water, which is even more desperately needed. That, at any rate, is the story of what happened to the eastern Roman Emperor Justinian as he was marching across Syria with a thirsty army. Spying a lovely gazelle in the distance, he chased the animal until it led him to a cool, refreshing spring. Before he could slay the animal, it transformed into an image of the Virgin Mary, shining with brilliant light, who declared: “Do not kill me, Justinian, but build a church on this hill.”
That is what tradition has to say about the foundation in the mid-6th century of Saidnaya convent, about 20 miles north of Damascus, which has been a centre of worship and pilgrimage ever since. The showpiece of the convent is an icon of Mary where Christians and Muslims alike (especially women who yearn to conceive) have addressed their prayers. The blessing of the Virgin Mary at Saidnaya is also invoked by people contemplating a long journey; when a Syrian Muslim cosmonaut went to the Soviet space station Mir, he sought the Virgin’s help and afterwards offered a sacrificial sheep in gratitude, as the travel writer William Dalrymple was bemused to learn.
Yesterday, as the world considered what to do about the apparent use of chemical weapons in another district close to Damascus, the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Yohanna Yazigi, went to Saidnaya and made a remarkable address. “In this blessed land of the Levant, we as Christians knew a better than good relationship with our brothers the Muslims. In this land we knew a brotherhood and fraternity with them, a brotherhood which cannot by divided by the difficulties of history and the machinations of spoilers. We reject [the idea] that anyone should dress in the clothing of religion to create division between the confessions of the same country.”
“We also reject [the idea] that anyone uses religion to stimulate division between us, Muslims and Christians,” he added. “We and you come from the clay of this land, and for a bright future of this lovely country we join our hands together. I declare this from this monastery which [enjoys] the intercessions of the Virgin Mary venerated by all of us, Muslims and Christians, about whom the Koran gives a very nice verse. “O Mary, God chose you and purified you from all the women of the world.”
Whatever else historians write about these tumultuous days for Syria and the Levant, they should surely devote a line to the fact that in the midst of all the turmoil, a Christian hierarch (whose brother and fellow bishop, Boulos Yazigi, was one of two bishops kidnapped near Aleppo in April) made this sonorous appeal to the things the two religions hold in common. As a hierarch whose job is to uphold all the teachings of early church councils, he is not the sort of careless syncretizer who thinks that all religions are basically the same. But at a critical moment in the destiny of his country, he found some compelling words to describe the common destiny, hopes and fears of all those formed by the “clay” of his land.