So, the pope is about to set off along the road to Damascus, on his way to the Great Mosque, once a cathedral. In a few weeks, he’s announced, he’ll be going there to pray.
Visits to mosques, mind you, are not always welcomed. Jews, for example, are not received with open arms on the Temple Mount. Islam is reluctant to open the door of its holy sites whenever there is a political clash under way. But these days, whether in the narrow sense (ethnic or territorial conflicts, clashes for land and supremacy) or the broader sense (cultural clashes or conflict over customs), Islam often finds itself quarreling with something, be it a religion, a state, a movement or an ethnic group.
The pope is going to pray at the sanctuary dedicated to the head of St. John the Baptist left standing inside the Great Mosque built on top of the original basilica.
Damascus has already announced that Muslims will not be praying together with the pope. Islam views itself as the temporal and spiritual culmination of monotheism and common prayer is seen as a way of relinquishing its supremacy.
In addition, praying in a place that is sacred to another religion has a powerful secular-temporal meaning: For Islam a spot is consecrated to a faith when people there bow down to pray. That is why Omar, the Arab general who first conquered Jerusalem, generously forsook prayer at the Holy Sepulchre, leaving it to the Christians. And while no opposite rulings exist (a Christian or a Jew praying in a mosque does not a church or synagogue make), transient property has its own highly persuasive logic.
Now, the pope is about to go to Syria to pray in the mosque of Damascus. And despite all the usual ecumenical fervor used to comment the event with triumphant exclamations for the now reinforced and enriched friendship between the three monotheistic religions (desirable of course, and we mustn’t forget the pope’s magic warmth), the affair is much more controversial than that.
First, by praying in the site of the mosque, which still belongs, as it were, to the Church, the pope is paying heed to his own and his people’s historic memory. This place was ours, he is saying, and it has not been forgotten.
The pope is a great world power as well as a spiritual leader, and Christianity is an ideological bulwark, the very origin of that West that Islam sees as corrupt and aggressive. And Islam is not at peace with the Christians: Of the 160 thousand Christians killed in ethnical-religious clashes or persecutions, or the 200 million people persecuted throughout the world, most of them have suffered from encounters with the Muslims. This is also true for the Palestinian Christians.
The pope is not unaware of this and knows very well that it is best to be magnanimous but never weak in the eyes of Islam. The pope is not only going to the mosque to hold out his hand in peace. He is also going to hold out the strength of Christianity in full view of the Muslim world. There are not many who would dare as much. It is not an easy thing to do. And not everyone can get away with it.
This is not simply a gesture of friendship between monotheistic faiths. There is a warning in the pope’s gesture. For the Muslims, faith dictates the law of the polis. The pope is going to penetrate that polis where there is no division between church and state and he is going to pray in the heart of the state.
He is bringing friendship but is also marking out an insurmountable limit.
Many mosques were built on the vestiges of other houses of worship. St. Sophia disappeared from Constantinople, the remains of the temple of King Solomon and later Herod are being destroyed in Jerusalem. They are the signs of a sovereignty about to be lovingly violated by the pope, in person.
Editor’s note: This column is also published today in the Jerusalem Post.