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Religion and Society

Lebanon: How the Annunciation came to be a joint Muslim-Christian national holiday

Religious motivations alone cannot explain the tragedy of confessional strife in different countries of the world. Although we must all pay attention to it, no one should cover up or hide those small events that in places like Lebanon run against such a trend. In this country, 25 March, the day when the angel Gabriel made the Annunciation to Mary, has become a national holiday. The initiative is the work of Sheikh Mohamad Nokkari, a Sunni Muslim who wants to further national reconciliation and inter-communal friendship, by raising the profile of the Virgin Mary, who is a point of reference for both Christians and Muslims. To do so, he picked a specific episode of her life, the Annunciation, that is described in both the Gospel and the Qur‘an. Mohamad Nokkari told us what led him to this goal.

How did you get the idea?


First, because of the important place the Holy Virgin holds in Christian and Muslim thought, but also because I wanted to unite Muslims and Christians around this idea. To all this, I must add a more basic and personal motive, connected to my first conference on Islamic thought on Christ and his mother. Whenever I attended a conference, I used to prepare a prayer in which I would ask God to open my heart to all forms of truths, whatever their origin; I would also ask him not to let my mind and faith shut out those who do not profess my own religion. On the contrary, I wanted them to open up and listen to others, understand and accept them. The Holy Virgin was the core of my idea of reconciliation. Indeed, if Eve is our biological mother, there is another one who welcomes and cares for us, who is concerned by the fate of Christians and Muslims. She is a mother who protects us, fills us with love and tenderness. With these considerations as my starting point, I went on to propose a joint Marian celebration involving both Christians and Muslims, a feast day in which the faithful of both religions would come together to invoke the name of the Virgin Mary, our common Mother.




What is Mary’s place in the Qur‘an?


Like the Gospel, the Qur‘an goes into details to describe the episode of the Annunciation and Christ’s miraculous birth. In the Qur‘an, no woman is mentioned by name but Mary’s, which comes up 36 times. A long verse is even dedicated to her. When God “hath preferred thee above (all) the women of creation,” her place was set forever. Her title applies to her life on earth as well as beyond. Choosing the Annunciation as a feast day to bring everyone together should be welcomed in both communities.




How did the initiative start and how did the government react?


A Christian friend of mine had this dream to see Muslims and Christians pray together. After we first met, we began working together and quickly focused on organising a joint ceremony on 25 March (feast day of the Annunciation) inside Notre-Dame Church in Jamhour. When a Christian TV station broadcast the service live, I took advantage of the situation to work with top officials at the Islamic-Christian Committee to send a message to the government in which I proposed that this day would become a joint Muslim-Christian national holiday centred on Mary. The idea took off, and despite the opposition of the main religious authority of my community (the Mufti of Lebanon) who wanted me transferred to another job, the government unanimously backed the plan. A year later, my idea of a feast day was accepted by the new prime minister when I went to see him as member of the newly created Muslim-Christian association “Together around Mary, Our Lady.”




What impact can this joint celebration have on Muslim-Christian relations?


Our initiative will affect Muslim-Christian relations for a long time. This coming together around Mary is already an especially important event in the history of our two religions. Once more, the Holy Virgin will increase her love for the whole of humanity, and Lebanon will show once again that, in addition to being a country, it is also a message.