This culture wants neither to eliminate nor to ignore differences. It intends, rather, to educate people in recognising them, in accepting them, in respecting them and in cooperating with the other in a spirit of authentic charity. It is also characterised by a search for, and the sharing of, high human values, without excluding those values whose reference is religious faith. In this sense, the respect, the devotion and the love with which Christians and Muslims look at Mary form a part of the cores of their respective faiths. Mary is ‘full of grace,’ reads the Holy Gospel, while the Koran describes her as ‘chosen…above all women.’ Her name recurs thirty-four times in the Koran, in twelve different suras. One of these, the Sura of Mary, which has ninety-eight verses, is expressly on her. In all of these passages the Koran offers images which describe her at various stages of her life: before her birth, the annunciation of the angel, during childbirth, and at the moment of the beginning of the mission of Jesus.
Verses 35-37 of the Sura of the House of Imran portray the family situation of Mary before her birth. They narrate that the mother of Mary, the wife of Imran, knowing that she was expecting a child, consecrated to God the child that she bore in her womb and prayed to Him to accept her vow. But when she gave birth she realised that the child was in reality a girl. Strongly disappointed, she became sad because she had hoped that the child would be a boy and could thus serve God in a better way through his work. The mother of Mary poured all her bitterness into her supplications to the Lord. She said to Him: ‘Lord, I have given birth to her, a female.’ Yet, and the same verses of the Koran relate this fact, ‘God knew very well what she had given birth to.’ We understand from these words that the little Mary was not just a female or a girl like all the others. The verses continue by observing that the wife of Imran chose the name of Mary for her daughter and consecrated her to God, praying to the Lord to protect Mary and her descendants from Satan. This was the second vow after the one by which she had consecrated the child when she still bore Mary in her womb. God answered her: He accepted her offering, the little Mary, ‘with gracious favour…and by His goodness she grew up comely,’ giving her therefore a pure and healthy life. And He entrusted her to Zachariah, may peace be upon him. Zachariah, who was a true believer and an ascetic and had agreed to accept Mary as a divine order, was amazed when seeing the signs that God gave. The Koran, in fact, relates that ‘Whenever Zachariah went in to her in the Sanctuary, he found her provisioned.’ The sanctuary was a place of prayer and worship of God and this means that Mary prayed to God and worshipped him unceasingly. And she was fed and clothed by the will of God. Zachariah was amazed at the presence of this food. Indeed, he never brought her anything and knew that Mary never left the sanctuary. It was thus normal that he asked her, as one verse relates, ‘how comes this to thee?’ Mary answered, and once again this is what the Koran narrates, that it came to her from God through his angels. And hers was the answer of one who believes with trust and serenity: ‘From God…truly God provisions whomsoever He will without reckoning.’
A Never Achieved Dignity
After this account, verses 42-45 of the Sura on the House of Imran offer us the text of the first annunciation of the angels to Mary (‘Mary, God has chosen thee, and purified thee; He has chosen thee above all women, Mary’) and the text where the angels announce her motherhood (‘God gives thee good tidings of a Word from Him whose name is Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary’). Christ is the Word of God, and thus one is not dealing with an ordinary birth or of a man like other men.
Verses 16-21 of the Sura of Mary provide a detail of the annunciation, explaining how God sent Mary His Spirit, in the form of ‘a man without fault,’ and narrating the dialogue between the woman and the Spirit who appeared in human form.
All these passages demonstrate that Mary has a dignity in Islam that is never achieved by another woman, from Eve until the end of the world. It is specifically this dignity that is one of the foundations of the encounter between Muslims and Christians. For this reason a famous committee was formed named ‘Islamic-Christian Encounter around Mary’ which over the last three years has organised special celebrations on the occasion of the Feast of the Annunciation, during which Christian and Muslim prayers are recited at the altar of the Church of Our Lady at the College of Jamhour, one of the major institutions of the Jesuits in the Lebanon. At the time of the last feast the National Islamic-Christian Committee for Dialogue, on which all the religious authorities of the country are represented, was entrusted with the task of promoting with the government of the country the proclamation of the Feast of the Annunciation as a national Islamic-Christian feast and not only as a Christian religious feast. At the outset the committee worked with the former Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, who greeted the proposal with enthusiasm. When announcing the initiative in public he entrusted the Council of ministers with issuing a decree. But in the end the publication of the decree was postponed. The committee then renewed its efforts with the head of the new government, Saad Hariri, who expressed an enthusiastic opinion on the subject on the eve of his visit to the Vatican to meet His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI (translator’s note: 20 February 2010). In only forty-eight hours the Prime Minister managed to issue the decree which proclaimed 25 March a national holiday and he also formed a ministerial committee responsible for organising shared celebrations by Christians and Muslims. The Lebanon can in addition boast of the fact that its capital, Beirut, is the only Arab city where a statue has been erected of Pope John Paul II, as well as being the only Arab country, indeed the only country in the world, which sees the Annunciation as a national holiday. And all of this while the National Islamic-Christian Committee, of which I have the honour to be the Secretary General, works for inter-religious dialogue so as to make the Lebanon a model for co-existence between Christians and Muslims.
During the meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Saad Hariri, the decision regarding the Feast of the Annunciation was the point of departure for discussing questions connected with the presence and the role of Christians in the Middle East which, because of their importance and their innumerable implications, require in-depth study. Between the Pope and Hariri there was total agreement on the fact that the disorder which in the wake of the Arab-Israeli conflict reigns in the Middle East, plays a primary role in the suffering of which the Christians are the victims.