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Lessons from Zeitoun: a Marian proposal for Christian-Muslim dialogue.

In a 1999 article examining Christian-Muslim relations in modern Egypt, David Zeidan made the following observation:
 History registers the existence of two religious communities in
 Egypt for over thirteen centuries, sharing in the same
 Egyptian-Arab-Islamic culture in spite of their differences. The
 relationship between them is based on Islamic concepts and has
 experienced many ups and downs. Sadly, at the end of the twentieth
 century it seems that both traditional and modern tools for
 conflict resolution between them have failed.(1)

More recent articles published in the International Review of Mission verify Zeidan's discouraging assessment. (2) Indeed, violent episodes have marred interreligious relations well into the twenty-first century. (3)

In 1968, however, a notable interruption in Egypt's sometimes overt, sometimes sublimated interreligious tensions occurred from an entirely unexpected source--the alleged appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to more than a quarter of a million people in Cairo. This phenomenon, which is arguably one of the most startling religious events of the twentieth century, bore much fruit in the way of piety among Egyptian Muslims and Christians alike. Their renewed sense of piety led the thousands gathered at any given time during the period of apparitions to join "in communal ecumenical [and interreligious] prayer vigils and religious celebrations" marking "the first time that anyone could remember Moslems and Christians worshipping together in Egypt." (4)

This phenomenon, I believe, deserves serious consideration by those engaged in formal dialogue for many reasons. Most importantly for this essay, it opens the possibility of a common, unifying model and patroness--a concrete symbol of goals shared by Muslims and Christians engaged in dialogue--that would enhance our spirit of friendship and help to clarify our purposes. While this essay does not allow for the lengthy investigation necessary to make definitive recommendations, I hope to provide evidence of the great benefits that a "mariological" symbol could provide by first examining the historical phenomenon referenced above within the context of Egypt's interreligious history, then proceeding to a more abstract discussion of the connection between Marian spirituality and the ideals of dialogue within the doctrinal context of each tradition.

A Short History of Muslim-Christian Relations in Egypt

The Coptic ("Egyptian") Orthodox Church comprised the majority of Egypt's population when Arab armies entered the country in 642 C.E. under the leadership of 'Amr ibn al-'As. By the end of the tenth century Islam was the majority religion and remains so to this day.(5) Precise religious demographics are difficult to procure: "According to the 1976 census, the percentage of Christians in Egypt was 6.2%. Many Christians feel this is not a fair representation, and the Orthodox Church claimed an unofficial membership of 8 million, or nearly 22% of the population of 36.6 million in 1976." (6)

Although, generally speaking, the social and economic status of Christians and Muslims has been fairly comparable throughout Egypt's history, relations between the two populations have been mixed from the beginning. Conventional scholarly opinion up through the 1980's suggested that the Copts, who were in disagreement over doctrinal matters with the rest of Byzantium, welcomed Islam as a liberator from their Byzantine persecutors. More recent studies of seventh-century Coptic documents, however, have convincingly refuted this theory:
 The History of the Patriarchs as well as the other texts show that
 relations between the Copts and their Muslim rulers were mainly
 good, and that the patriarchs were respected as holy men. On the
 other hand, the History of the Patriarchs also reports that the
 Copts were attacked under Patriarch Isaac (686-689): crosses were
 destroyed, and polemical statements against the doctrines of
 Incarnation and Trinity were written on the doors of churches.
 Furthermore, the Panegyric calls the Muslims 'oppressors'. This
 evidence suggests that the idea that the Copts received the Muslims
 as liberators is no longer tenable. (7)

It seems that the Copts considered themselves beleaguered spectators as they watched the Romans and Arabs battle for their homeland. Finally, the Copts unenthusiastically signed a peace treaty agreeing to accept the protection of the Arabs. (8) In some respects the Copts faired well under the newly established Arab walls (authorities). In spite of Islamic prohibitions against hiring dhimmi, (9) "Copts ... occupied most of the administrative posts, ... [and] sometimes had full powers. The tax and accounting system continued to be in their hands, which gave them opportunity to achieve big gains." (10) This fact does not, however, indicate an absence of friction between the Christian and Muslim communities. Consider, for example, the following: (1) there were petitions made by Muslims to remove Christians from their posts; (2) at one point the caliph, al-Mutawakkil (847-861 C.E.), prohibited Christians from riding horses and ordered pictures of devils or pigs and monkeys to be painted on the doors of Christian homes; finally, (3) Christians were sometimes regarded as natural allies of Islam's Byzantine enemies and suffered persecution because of it. (11)

More recently, the presence (and subsequent absence) of colonial powers in the twentieth century left Egypt in a long, painful struggle to establish (or, rather, re-establish) a national identity. This struggle has consistently exacerbated religious tensions as the national government has vacillated between programs emphasizing (1) a common pharaonic heritage, (2) ties with modern, Mediterranean Europe, (3) a secular, pan-Arab ideology, or (4) an Egyptian Islamic state. (12) At the same time, a number of unscrupulous politicians have used religion to further their own agendas:
 A main element in the unsteady balance of Muslim-Coptic relations
 in this [twentieth] century has been the tendency of unscrupulous
 politicians to manipulate the religious divide in an effort to
 strengthen their own position. [For] example ... the policies of
 [Anwar] Sadat who in 1980-1981 openly accused the Copts of a
 conspiracy against the state in order to bolster his alliance with
 the Islamic groups against the political left ... These appeals to
 religion succeed for a while in diverting hostility from the
 regime's real problems. (13)

This essay treats events occurring between 1967 and 1969, during the regime of Gamal 'abd al-Nasir, whose Free Officer's Revolution overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 and sought to create a secular, pan-Arab state: "While religion was not by any means a central part of [Nasser's] ideology, he was able to use it to consolidate his leadership position." (14) This meant courting the majority-Muslim population and using religion to "buttress nationalism, socialism and the one-party 'popular democracy'." (15)

Coptic Christian Mary Khair was a young woman busily making wedding plans for her marriage to Dr. Gamil Khair in the late1960's in Cairo. She generously offered her personal reflections about that time during an interview conducted by this author. (16) Her memories support the above reports of Egyptian political manipulation, recalling for example a fiction about an anti-Muslim, Jewish-Christian alliance that circulated among and was commonly believed by Egyptian Muslims. (17) She also recalled some attacks on Christian churches in Upper Egypt, noting that these were fueled by Muslim extremists (namely, the Muslim Brotherhood) and not supported by the Egyptian government, the latter being very concerned with keeping the civil peace.

By contrast, Mary Khair's memories paint a rather pleasant picture regarding the day-to-day life of the Muslims and Christians in her neighborhood. In her apartment building on Tomanbey Street, there were three Christian and seven Muslim residences. Here people lived and worked together peacefully, exchanging holiday greetings, and forming friendships in a wholesome atmosphere marred only by the more subtle religious discrimination one encounters as a minority wishing to be promoted in an economic system that favors the majority. Formal tokens of goodwill and cooperation between Muslim and Christian religious leaders were expressed as the Coptic Pope and Muslim dignitaries regularly received each other during their respective religious holidays. It seems, however, that, while personal friendships certainly did and still do exist, the widespread acceptance of rumors about anti-Muslim activity among Christians indicated a rather precarious civility between the two communities on the whole.

The one venue that appears to have provided Christians and Muslims in Egypt a consistent religious bond is the veneration or honor of the persons of the Holy Family, particularly Mary. (18) For example, Khair tells of the friendship between her mother and a Muslim woman who had asked for the Blessed Virgin's intercession when the woman's daughter was ill. The daughter recovered and the Muslim woman accompanied the Khair family to the Divine Liturgy every August 21 (the Coptic Feast of the Assumption) to thank the Blessed Virgin for her help.

In addition, because (according to Christian and Muslim tradition) Egypt was the land to which the Holy Family fled during Herod's persecution, there are many pilgrimage sites honoring the events and places associated with the Holy Family's exile. Although the trail (which begins with sites commemorating their entrance into northern Egypt and extends along the Nile to the governate of Assiut, 327 kilometers south of Cairo) is dotted with Christian churches and monasteries, in Khair's estimation every Muslim who has a Christian friend has visited these holy places. (19) Perhaps this openness to common veneration of the Holy Family paved the way for the astounding religious events of 1968.

A Description of the Apparitions of Zeitoun

The year 1968 began on a singularly low note for Egyptians, who had been defeated by Israel in the Six-Day War in June, 1967. The defeat was quite unexpected and "played a critical role in the reemergence of religious sentiment in Egypt, as Egyptians felt they were being punished for their lack of faith." (20) Historian Morroe Berger observed, "During Ramadan a few months after the war of June 1967... the government-owned press published more religious discussion than in previous annual observances of this holy month." (21) Because Christians were accused of espionage during the Six-Day War, interreligious tensions had also increased. Anthropologist Cynthia Nelson, an instructor at the American University in Cairo during this turbulent time, summarized the situation:
 [T]ensions between Muslims and Copts intensified to such a degree
 that Nasser made a public speech about the bravery and courage and
 patriotism of the Christian soldiers to discourage the Muslim
 Brotherhood from casting blame on the Copts. Even close friends, as
 1 was told by one informant, began to doubt each other when it came
 to the question of religion. (22)

It was within this atmosphere of national discouragement and religious mistrust that three Muslim mechanics, Farouk Mohammed Atwa, Hussein Awwad, and Yacout Ali Mocamoun, reported for their late-night shifts on April 2, 1968, at a municipal garage located across the street from St. Mary's Coptic Church, at the corner of Tomanbey Street and Khalil Lane in the Cairo suburb of Zeitoun. (23) At some point during that night, Atwa happened to look across the street to the church and saw a woman standing on its roof. Alarmed for her safety, he pointed at her and called for her to come down. Atwa was joined by the other two workers, but all three quickly realized that the woman was not actually standing on, but floating above, the domes of the church and appeared to glow. They awoke the rector of St. Mary's Church, who immediately recognized the woman as the Blessed Virgin.

By this time a small crowd had gathered and began to shout praises to the Blessed Virgin as the mysterious woman bowed in apparent acknowledgement. Her identification rests on the crowd's association of the woman with typical artistic depictions of Mary, the apparition's silent acknowledgement of the crowd's praises, and the fact that her appearances, which continued for the next fourteen months, occurred "most frequently early Sunday morning and on the 32 Marian feast days in the Coptic Church calendar." (24)

There were more than seventy recorded apparitions occurring over the domes and in the courtyard of St. Mary's Church throughout the next fourteen months, so that the site became one of pilgrimage for Muslims, Christians, the curious of other faiths, and those who had no faith at all. The size of nightly crowds averaged approximately 10,000 people and at times swelled to 100,000, so that the total number of people who saw the Marian apparitions is estimated between 250,000 and 500,000. (25) Testimonies have been taken from doctors, architects, engineers, members of the mass media, and government officials, including Egypt's Minister of Labor and President Nasser, himself. (26)

Initially, city officials were alarmed by the large crowds and, assuming the luminous apparitions to be a hoax, disconnected or broke all the street lights in the surrounding area to eliminate possible sources of reflected or projected light. (27) The apparitions and crowds persisted, however, and investigative committees were soon formed by Pope Kyrillos VI of the Coptic Church, Patriarch Stephanos I of the Catholic Copts, and the General Information and Complaints Department of the Egyptian Government, under the direction of Minister Hafez Ghanem. Each issued formal reports verifying the apparitions. (28) The following statement is taken from the government report:
 [O]fficial investigations have been carried out with the result
 that it has been considered an undeniable fact that the Blessed
 Virgin Mary has been appearing at the Coptic Orthodox Church at
 Zeitoun in a clear and bright luminous seen by all present in front
 of the church whether Christian or Moslem. (29)

Many pilgrims to the site reported spontaneous physical healings, spurring the Coptic Church to set up an additional team of seven medical doctors, headed by Dr. Shafik Abdel Malek, to review reportedly miraculous claims, many of which defied natural explanation. (30) The most famous of these, made by the phenomenon's first witness, Farouk Mohammed Atwa, was reported in the April 21, 1968, issue of the Egyptian periodical, Watani. (31) Apparently, the finger that Atwa used to point to the figure above the church was to have been amputated the following day because of infection. However, when his doctors examined it on April 3, they found that it had been completely healed and cancelled the operation.

There were at least ten different recorded types of apparitions, all of which seemed to have a Marian orientation. The woman appeared in partial and full figure, extending gestures of blessing to the crowd, sometimes bowing to the crosses that adorned the church domes, sometimes carrying an olive branch or the baby Jesus, but never speaking. (32) All of the apparitions were accompanied by paranormal lights that sometimes shot across the sky. There were also descriptions of sweet-smelling, reddish-colored clouds, which emerged and dissipated with unnatural rapidity and luminous dove-like birds passing swiftly and noiselessly through the air. All of the apparitions occurred at night, some lasting only a few minutes, others lasting for several hours. The longest began at 9 p.m. on June 8, 1968 and lasted until approximately 4:30 a.m. on June 9. (33)

An Exploration of the Significance of the Apparitions of Zeitoun

The apparitions of Zeitoun were unusual within the long and prolific history of Marian apparitions in that they were silent. (34) It is reasonable to think that this silence in some way contributed to Mary's purposes, and that, in light of the presence of doves and the extension of an olive branch--widely acknowledged symbols of peace--as well as gestures of blessing bestowed on all present, her purposes may well have been focused on bringing peace to a community fraught with sectarian tensions. The appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary would seem particularly appropriate to such a cause, as both Christians and Muslims revere her. However, it is important to note that each religious tradition has a very different understanding of her story and significance. (35) Therefore, one could speculate that, while Mary's silent appearance might bring out noble sentiments in each group as they interpreted the event within the context of their respective traditions, a verbal message might have risked favoring one group over the other and thus have aggravated existing hostilities. (36)

It is interesting to note that Mary's actions did, indeed, lend themselves to radically different interpretations, which had in common a general call to piety and peaceful cohabitation. For example, the figure of Mary carrying the child, Jesus, was significant for both Christians and Muslims. To Christians, such a sight would be likely to recall the tender vulnerability of Christ's humanity and a flood of associated doctrines about God's solicitous love for the world. To Muslims, the same image would be likely to recall Sura 19 in which the Blessed Virgin of Islam showed her newborn child to a hostile crowd. The child dispelled the crowd's hostilities and introduced himself as a great prophet sent to show people the way to God. Drastic differences notwithstanding, there would be, in each association, a call for peace and piety. Mary's gesture of bowing to the crosses atop the church was also open to noble interpretations from each tradition. While Christians might have understood the gesture as a validation of Christ's crucifixion and its theological significance, Muslims could have understood it as a call to respect the "people of the book." The question is, then, how did the local community respond to the event?

Nelson, who was teaching in Cairo at the time of the apparitions, witnessed the events and conducted her own study of local reactions. She has observed that the Blessed Virgin "as the Magna Mater ... symbolizes for the Egyptians--both Christian and Muslim alike--a succoring, protective mother, the great prototype of the universal human experience, who has the power to banish chaos and restore the benign shape of the world." (37) She made the following pertinent observations:
 In the minds of most Egyptians the apparition is connected to the
 Six-Day War of June, 1967, in which Egypt suffered a military
 defeat that left the country in despair and its people confronting
 perhaps the severest crisis in their contemporary history .... To
 most Egyptians the appearance of the Virgin was initially a sign of
 hope.., the Virgin had come to the Egyptians to restore faith in
 God and give hope and moral support to the defeated, perhaps even
 to lead the Egyptians to victory over the modern-day Herods. That
 is, during the initial months the Virgin was seen as a collective
 symbol for all Egyptians. The attitude of those who went to Zeitoun
 at this time was one of organized communal supplication toward the
 supernatural of a people seeking divine guidance at a time when
 there seemed to be no visible way out of a hopeless situation. (38)

Nelson's findings indicate that, although Mary's person and story are understood and appropriated differently within Christian and Muslim traditions, members of each group present at the apparitions saw in her person and story an illustration of certain commonly-held principles fundamental to peaceful cohabitation and respectful dialogue. (39) They can he summarized as follows: (1) faith in a God who is concerned for God's people and is the supreme power, shaper of, and hope for human destiny; and (2) acknowledgement of the already existing bond of our common humanity/human experience. Thus, the Blessed Virgin functioned as a symbol of unity, peace, and hope, bringing Muslims and Christians together in a solidarity previously unknown in this community.

In addition to underscoring the aforementioned principles, the Marian apparitions of Zeitoun inspired a corresponding dramatic increase in piety that had a profoundly positive influence on ethical behavior. (40) Khair's memories attest to a special atmosphere of devotion and piety. She and her family were parishioners at St. Mary's Church and lived in the same neighborhood. While she was careful to acknowledge the differences in reactions among those she knew, stating that increased piety was not a universal phenomenon, she also recalled an atmosphere that became very "biblical" because of the constant presence of people praying and awaiting healing. Ronald Bullivant, an Anglican correspondent for Eastern Churches Review who made a pilgrimage to Zeitoun during the time of the apparitions, agreed with Khair's description: "The atmosphere was deeply spiritual and one seemed to be back in the days of our Lord, surrounded by those who had been healed of broken limbs, cancer, blindness, and the like." (41)

According to Khair, this was not the reaction that government officials expected. Apparently, as Nelson's article confirms, they were quite nervous about the possibility of civil unrest arising from the large gatherings. Fortunately, the apparitions inspired the opposite reaction. Bullivant, who made his visit during the month of Ramadan, was deeply impressed by the interreligious harmony he encountered: "As soon as we arrived we became aware of the background of singing and the chanting of litanies and prayers offered by individual groups of Copts, Greeks, Latins, and Muslims, who crowded the ground immediately surrounding the church." (42)

Bullivant's article relates one interesting interreligious encounter, described to him by a respected Muslim Hadji who lived along the path taken by pilgrims to St. Mary's Church. The man explained that at first he did not believe in the apparitions and shouted at pilgrims passing by his home, occasionally even throwing rocks at them and threatening to call the police. Then, according to the man's story, Mary appeared to him and begged him to stop abusing the pilgrims. She further instructed him to paint a cross on his house. The man--who remains a devout Muslim--said that he became convinced of the authenticity of the Zeitoun apparitions, ceased his previous behavior, and painted forty large white crosses all around his home. (43)

The above testimonies unanimously indicate the power of the Marian symbol to unite and harmonize Muslims and Christians. Significant doctrinal differences notwithstanding, Muslim and Christian traditions revere the Blessed Virgin Mary as a sort of ambassador for God's Word--one who bears God's revelation (which, for Christians, is the Person of Christ) to God's people. I would suggest that those engaged in formal dialogue recognize and draw upon this phenomenon in a manner that coincides with each tradition's established belief systems.

The remainder of this essay will be devoted to an exploration of some ways in which Mary embodies the principles identified in Nelson's study and others important to dialogue within specifically Catholic Christian and Sunni Muslim contexts. The works of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Catholic) and Allah Schleifer (Sunni) will serve as points of departure. First, however, it is necessary to define terms by making some preliminary remarks about the nature of dialogue and corresponding expectations.

Dialogue, Mission, and Da 'wah: Definitions and Presuppositions

Because the above terms are open to many different interpretations, it is appropriate to identify their meaning within the context of this essay, thus setting the parameters of this discussion. I will be assuming that "Christianity and Islam have in common the fact that.., they are missionary religions," (44) that "mission and Da'wah form the cornerstone" of each tradition, (45) and that a "common theme between the two religions is the urgency to reach others in order to offer something precious which the others need to have." (46) This sense of mission is the raison d'etre for the Christian community, which was commanded by Christ to go into the world and make disciples of all nations (see Mt. 28:19-20 and Jn. 17:18). For Muslims, Sura 16:125, "Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the better way" makes da'wah "integral to Islam." (47)

While there is room for disagreement on the issue, for the purposes of this essay, I will assume that mission and da'wah are inseparable from dialogue, because dialogue "is not possible unless a partner has a genuine point of view and something to offer." (48) As stated by Khurram Murad, "[T]here is no point to entering into dialogue unless it is Da'wah." (49) Thus, "Muslims generally argue that dialogue comes under the broad spectrum of Da'wah." (50)

The pontifical document, Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflection and Orientation on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ presents a similar point of view. (51) Proclamation of the gospel and dialogue, it states, are "both viewed, each in its own place, as component elements and authentic forms of the one evangelizing mission of the Church. They are both oriented towards the communication of salvific truth" (no. 2). Therefore, dialogue, although distinct from proclamation, must never be separated from it. Indeed, dialogue is only legitimately practiced if it is a dialogue of salvation (no. 39), for the "foundation of the Church's commitment to dialogue is not merely anthropological but primarily theological" (no. 38).

Finally Murad has said that, when entering into dialogue, Christians and Muslims may "have the same purpose and so long as we are not out to impose our views.., or use any means which would fall under the category of exploiting human beings ... Da 'wah is and should be a part of dialogue. This is true for both the parties." (52)

The distinction he draws between evangelical efforts and exploitation points toward another important attitude shared by Christians and Muslims. Each tradition attributes actual religious conversion (whether referring to deeper conviction within their respective belief systems or change to a differing belief system) to the power of God. Therefore, the Muslim is to argue his case "and never give up that God may guide his fellow-man to the truth," but "[i]f the non-Muslim is still not convinced, the Muslim is to rest his case with God." (53) With similar rhetoric, Dialogue and Proclamation instructs Christians to realize that it is the Holy Spirit who works in the hearts of all humanity and that such realization implies humble, respectful conduct, free from coercion as we extend an "invitation" to belief in the gospel message (no. 10).

These ideas are rooted in the notion that God is truly working in the lives of people of different faiths. Thus, the second half of Sura 16:125 referenced above states: "Lo! The Lord is best aware of him who strayeth from His way, and He is best aware of those who go aright." This is also the reason that Dialogue and Proclamation affirms "the universal action of the Holy Spirit in the world before the Christian dispensation, to which it was ordained, and referring to the universal action of the same Spirit today, even outside the visible body of the Church" (no. 26).

Such attitudes give preeminence to obedience to God, personal holiness, and prayer within the dialogue process. If we are to be God's instruments in the pursuit of divine truth, we must submit and open our hearts to God. For believers of these respective faiths, this is much more than a tangential observation--that is, something we really "ought" to do when preparing for dialogue, but something that fades into the background during the actual event while we focus on more academic, social, political, and economic issues. To the contrary, successfully addressing these and other concerns discussed during formal Muslim-Christian dialogues requires a conscious awareness of humanity's working in the service of God, under God's guidance and power. I also submit that, as human beings universally vulnerable to sin, we require some kind of concrete, recognized symbol of our holy intentions. The person and character of the Blessed Virgin can fill this need in a uniquely powerful way.

Because the story of Mary and its theological implications differ between Christianity and Islam, each community would have to appropriate this symbol in its own manner. The following is a brief sample of ways in which this could be done. It is my hope that the discussion presented here may inspire a more detailed effort in the future.

The Marian Ecclesiology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Interreligious Dialogue

Balthasar's work provides an example of theological justification for a Marian approach to dialogue from a Catholic point of view. His thoughts on the topic are a logical extension of a complex series of interrelated ideas rooted in a trinitarian theology, which is accessible through the Son's incarnation and involves the entire human race in a journey from a common origin to a common destiny in God: the "Trinity, guiding and fashioning the world drama, draws it into itself." (54) For Balthasar, this-worldly peace and prosperity are worthy goals for and expected consequences of dialogue, but they are secondary to dialogue's ultimate goal, which is to facilitate humanity's movement toward our supernatural end:
 [I]f all men are called to supernatural salvation, grace must be
 active in them in some sense or other; that a dialogue between
 Christian and non-Christian is possible and necessary within that
 grace; that not only the historical world, but the whole biological
 genesis of the Cosmos belongs in God's world plan and must be
 created and ordered towards the anakephalairsis of all things in
 Christ, towards the entire Kingdom of God. (55)

Evident in the above quotation is Balthasar's insistence that God is operating throughout all of history in all of humanity and that God's divine work is the primary reason for, focus of, and power behind humankind's journey from origin to final destiny. (56) It is worth noting, at this point, that such a point of view is in harmony with the following statement from Dialogue and Proclamation: "[T]he Church's commitment to dialogue ... flows from God's initiative in entering into a dialogue with humankind and from the example of Jesus Christ whose life, death and resurrection gave to that dialogue its ultimate expression" (no. 53). God is the One, universalizing principle. Therefore, while "Balthasar's thought is an open thought which grows in a dialogue and risks dialogue in all directions: with ... the contemporary spirit [and] ... the major world religions" he is, above all, "in dialogue with the 'Word' itself." (57)

Because Balthasar's vision of dialogue (its purpose and power) rests on a complete openness/surrender to God's grace, a specifically Marian ecclesiology proves imperative. He insists, "Petrine universality is subject to the formative influence of the Marian but not vice versa." (58) That is, the Marian principle forms the mystical core of the Church--that which is entirely open to the grace of the Holy Spirit, receiving God with complete docility to God's will, and bearing the fruit of God's will in the world. (590

At least three criteria for Christian-Muslim dialogue follow from placing such emphasis on a Marian ecclesiology: (1) the recognition of the primacy of God's initiative in our endeavors, (2) a powerful sense of solidarity with and compassion for the entire human race, and (3) a focus on prayer and personal holiness as a fundamental and essential prerequisite for success.

Mary's fiat was a total surrender to God, allowing her to be "an open womb" that "teaches mankind, in her and with her, to be similarly open." (60) She became an instrument, indeed a living conduit, through whom God worked (and in the Catholic mind, still works) miracles, entering human history and calling humanity to fulfill our supernatural destiny. Balthasar observed that "nowhere is Mary's whole cast of mind more present" than that scriptural passage wherein she instructs the wine-stewards at the wedding feast of Cana to "'Do whatever he [Christ] tells you.'" (61) Similarly, we who engage in dialogue acknowledge that it is rooted in God's initiative and say to ourselves and those at the table with us, "Do whatever he tells you."

It should be noted that this is not a merely passive submission. Mary's instruction is not simply a matter of "submission to the will of God," still less of cluttering up the space with conventional well-wishing; rather, it is the will to retreat into the background and make possible the encounter between human need and divine grace. "Letting it be" is not the same as letting things go. It is not bursting through restraints; rather, it is making room for the other (be it God or human or both) to act freely. (62)

Mary's radical surrender to the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit and the indwelling of the Divine Word makes Marian spirituality universal as God is universal. (63) As one who is filled with the love of a God who loves and draws all humanity to Godself, Mary exists in a state of intense solidarity with the rest of humankind and is therefore attentive to our needs. (64) This is illustrated at the wedding feast as she is sensitive to the need for more wine and takes the action necessary to solve the problem by petitioning her son. The result of her action is both more wine and a closer relationship with God for those who have obeyed her son. The ability to act out of love for God and neighbor opens our eyes to needs we might otherwise overlook, and the ability to take action as God's instrument produces the most efficient, effective results.

As we respond to the needs of those around us, we must first ask ourselves, in true humility and honesty, what action our God would wish us to take, maintaining vigilance against actions that may be more self-serving than other-serving. Mary's example during the wedding feast as well as the passages during which she "ponders" (Lk. 2:1 9 and 52) the facts of her life without fully understanding them provides a model for preserving a balance between the use of natural gifts (in this case, intellectual assessment) and respect for mystery. She takes action during the wedding feast--but only in cooperation with God's will. She uses her reason to explore God's mysteries but does not pretend more knowledge than she has, willingly surrendering to divine guidance. (65) She shows us both the courage of proclamation and the humility of obedience and wonder.

Finally, if the Holy Spirit is the universalizing principle of the Church, the One who allows us to say "we," then being filled with the Holy Spirit is imperative to any effort to reach out to other people. (66) However, to the degree that we are sinful, we are not filled with the Holy Spirit. This is why Balthasar contends that Mary, who is immaculate, is the perfect vessel for the Holy Spirit, the one who leads us out of the isolation of sin and into the loving solidarity of holiness--a solidarity that embraces the suffering of others and becomes a "citadel of compassion." (67) All of this underscores the necessity of prayer and the enthusiastic use of the means available to us whereby we increase in holiness. If we fail to take this aspect of Christian life seriously, we diminish our access to the source of love and wisdom on which we depend to assess and address human needs accurately.

For Catholics, then, formally adopting Mary as a patroness and guide in Christian-Muslim dialogue seems a logical and powerful step to further our success. She is a unique role-model for those with universal interests. However, the external form this might take during the dialogue process would, of course, have to recognize Muslim sensibilities, some of which will now be examined.

Aliah Schleifer 's "Blessed Virgin of Islam" and Dialogue

Although Schleifer does not address the issues of interreligious dialogue directly, her book, Mary, the Blessed Virgin of Islam, provides an apt point of departure for this discussion as it "illustrates the revered position that the Virgin Mary holds in the thought of Sunni Islam, as well as the respect and veneration with which ordinary Muslims regard her." (68) Schleifer's Marian study provides some excellent answers to specific Muslim concerns regarding interreligious dialogue, namely, maintaining "the centrality of God [as] the prime motivator in dialogue" and the recommended methods for implementing dialogue and da 'wah, which include striving for personal holiness. (69)

Schleifer observed that "Mary as the image of submission is symbolic of the religion itself and furnishes an eternal theological model for all those who follow the teachings of the Qur'an." (70) For one who wishes to maintain the centrality of God in dialogue, she is, therefore, an appropriate role model. The Blessed Virgin of the Qur'an was the only woman in history to have been consecrated to the Israelite Temple. There she engaged in a period of intense prayer and spiritual preparation for her divinely ordained mission. (71) It was only after the solitary Mary (who was already free from sin) matured in worship "until there was no person known at that time who approached her in the time of worshipping" that she was visited by the angel Gabriel who announced the great purpose of her life. (72) This purpose was to become the virgin mother of Jesus so that God "may make of him a revelation for mankind" (Sura 19:21), and both of them would be "a token for (all) peoples" (Sura 21:19). Her response to the angel's message was one of total surrender to God's will. (73)

Already, many lessons pertaining to dialogue emerge. Mary was to bear a revelation for all of humankind and was only able to do so because of her great prayer life, purity, and total surrender to the will of God. Similarly, a strong prayer life and surrender to God's will rather than the imposition of one's own will is imperative to the success of human efforts, which derive their significance and power from their conformity to the divine plan. Such submission requires great courage and trust. As Schleifer observed, "there must ... have been an element of fear present when she questioned the angel, implying the deep incongruity of pregnancy with her lifelong purity and devoutness. Her subsequent surrender to conception, then, represents an act of total faith in the Will of her Lord and her submission to it." (74)

Few, if any persons find submission of their own wills to God's anything but difficult, yet it is imperative, for it is God who initiates the call to worship God and God who empowers this call. Thus, the noun "da'wah" "occurs several times in the Qur'an, in the reciprocal senses of God's call to humankind, and the believers' call or prayer to God." (75) It is important to note that such qur'anic passages make known God's will to gather all to God's truth. Believers, therefore, have a responsibility to engage others (both within and external to the Muslim community) in dialogue and relationship, doing what one can to be an instrument in this cause. (76)

Mary's life provides an excellent model for engaging others as she enacts God's call through her pious example and reasoned argument. (77) The former is recognized by Muslim thinkers such as 'Abd al-Salam Muhammad Badawi, who proclaimed, "'The heart of the Virgin Mary, together with her son, calls out to any sinner who will hear to follow the True Religion--to shed tears of repentance for that which caused him to stray from God's Cause, and calls him to humbleness and submission.'" (78) We see the effect that her very presence has on others, in the traditional, extra--qur'anic account of Mary's visit to 'Ashya' (Elizabeth) while she is pregnant with Ya.hya (John the Baptist). The baby prostrates himself in his mother's womb, and both accept the witness of God's miracle.(79)

The techniques of example and reasoned discourse are both employed by Mary as she explains the nature of her virginal conception to Joseph, her friend and prayer companion. Joseph is alarmed at her unusual situation but considers her purity and therefore gives Mary's story a hearing. Mary explains the nature of her pregnancy, and Joseph is convinced, (80) Thus, a door to dialogue was opened by Mary's piety and fulfilled through her wise and charitable reasoning.

Reason seems ineffective when Mary confronts her community for the first time, but she does not force the issue. Mary is not coercive. Instead, because "not everyone was convinced, and some began to make suspicious accusations about the cause of her condition, so Mary, the Faithful, withdrew to a place far away from them." (81) This is not to say that she gave up, however. After Mary gave birth, she courageously returned to her community so that her infant might witness to them. This time, some believed. (82)

It is important to note that, in spite of the abuses she endured from her community, Mary remained selflessly concerned for them. This concern stemmed from a great faith in God and is dramatically illustrated in the account of the birth of 'Isa (Jesus). Mary was in great pain and actually said she desired death. Her motives are usually interpreted in the following way. She "desired death in two respects, firstly that she feared she would be suspected of evil in her religion and abused, and this might tempt her to lose her assurance of faith; and secondly so that her people would not suffer because of the slander associating her with adultery, as this would be ruinous for them." (83) It is plain, from the above interpretation, that Mary's own faith was more important to her than her life, but it is also plain that the well-being of her community (especially those who did not believe) was more important to her than her life.

I propose that, for these reasons at least (others would no doubt surface with a more thorough examination of the issues), Mary is an ideal and, in principle, essential model for Muslims engaged in dialogue as a part of da'wah and as a way of addressing human need. Her prayerful, holy example illustrates the means by which humankind achieves genuine charity and wisdom, for, through her total surrender to God's will, the focal point of her life became one of witness to divine truth, which was not only for her benefit but served the needs of others as well. Further, the form that Mary's witness took (example and reason) corresponds perfectly to the qur'anic exhortations concerning ways to approach those who require correction within and outside the Muslim community.

Concluding Remarks

The bodily appearances of Mary in Zeitoun, Egypt, were able to effect interreligious cooperation on a scale previously unheard of in the history of Muslim-Christian relations in that country. I believe that those engaged in formal dialogue should take note of the phenomenon, for Mary, a person who embodies perfect obedience/submission to God's will in both traditions is therefore also an ideal instrument for calling humankind to God's truth. She is God's herald--the one who reveals God's presence, power, and plan for humanity, a humanity united in the revelation of the One Creator. If dialogue is conceived of as a part of the evangelizing (although noncoercive) missions of Christianity and Islam, Mary as a concrete symbol of our common desire to serve God above all-which in turn implies diligence in the areas of personal holiness, ethical conduct, and genuine service to humanity--is a powerful reminder and rallying point for our cause.

(1) David Zeidan, "The Copts--Equal, Protected, or Persecuted? The Impact of Islamization on Muslim-Christian Relations in Modern Egypt," Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 10 (March, 1999): 63.

(2) E.g., see Peter E. Makari, "Christianity and Islam in Twentieth-Century Egypt: Conflict and Cooperation," International Review of Mission 89 (January, 2000): 88-98.

(3) The post-Mubarak religious violence that culminated in the burning of the Virgin Mary Church in Imbaba in Cairo on May 7, 2011, and the murder of six Coptic worshipers outside their church in Cairo on Christmas Day in 2010 (in January, the Coptic Christmas) were just two of many similar incidents that have been widely covered. See, e.g., "Cairo: Muslims and Christians Clash in Imbaba," on the BBC news website at Unfortunately, interfaith violence (primarily against Copts) seems to have increased since 2011. See, e.g., Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, "In Egypt, Christian-Muslim Tension Is on the Rise" (National Public Radio), available at It should be noted that there have also been recorded incidents of brave interreligious cooperation; see, e.g., Yasmin El-Rashidi, "Egypt's Muslims Attend Coptic Christmas Mass, Serving as 'Human Shields,'" printed by Ahramonline and available at News/3365.aspx. In addition, there was interfaith cooperation as Christians protected praying Muslims from riot police during the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square. See "Images of Solidarity as Christians Join Hands to Protect Muslims as They Pray during Cairo Protests," Daily Mail Reporter, available at Such incidents offer bright glimmers of hope for the future.

(4) Victor DeVincenzo, "The Apparitions at Zeitoun, Egypt: An Historical Overview," The Journal of Religion and Psychical Research 11 (January, 1988): 5. It should be noted that the interreligious "worship" to which the author refers consisted of Muslims and Christians who stood side-by-side in a crowd, reciting prayers from their own traditions.

(5) Makari, "Christianity and Islam," p. 89.

(6) Ibid. The website for the Central Intelligence Agency states that 90% of Egyptians are Muslim (mostly Sunni); 9%, Coptic; and 1%, other Christian traditions; see

(7) From Harold Suermann, "Copts and the Islam of the Seventh Century," in Emmanouela Grypeou, Mark Swanson, and David Thomas, eds., The Encounter of Eastern Christianity with Early Islam, The History of Christian-Muslim Relations 5 (Leiden, and Boston, MA: Brill, 2006), p. 109. Also see Jacques Tagher, Christians in Muslim Egypt: An Historical Study of the Relations between Copts and Muslims from 640 to 1922, tr. Ragai N. Makar, Arbeiten zum spatantiken und koptischen Agypten 10 (Altenberge, Germany: Oros Verlag, 1998), pp. 28-29.

(8) Tagher, Christians in Muslim Egypt, pp. 33-35.

(9) Non-Muslims who were afforded a protected status within Muslim territories.

(10) Ibid., p. 82.

(11) Ibid., pp. 82-87.

(12) Both Makari and Zeidan provide overviews of these trends.

(13) Zeidan, "The Copts," pp. 54-55; political manipulation of religious sentiments is also discussed by Makari and throughout Morroe Berger, Islam in Egypt Today: Social and Political Aspects of Popular Religion (Cambridge, U.K., and New York: At the University Press, 1970).

(14) Makari, "Christianity and Islam," p. 94.

(15) Berger, Islam in Egypt Today, p. 61.

(16) Interview with Mary Khair of Milwaukee, WI, by author, February 11, 2004, in Milwaukee.

(17) The fiction to which Mary Khair alludes was perpetuated by both political and religious sources. One example of this conscious perpetuation can be found in the popular and influential sermons of Shaykhs al-sh'rawl [1911-98], which consistently characterized Christians as crusaders allied to the Jews in attacking Islam. See Zeidan, "The Copts," p. 62. Also, note that tensions following the Six-Day War of 1967 rose to such a degree that Nasser felt compelled to extol the virtues of Christian soldiers so as to discourage attacks on Coptic Christians by Muslim extremists. See note 21, below.

(18) Mustafa al Bakri, a Sufi saint, also received reverence from both Christians and Muslims in Egypt during the mid-eighteenth century. Interreligious devotion to Mary and the Holy Family is, however, more widespread. For commentary on both, see Cynthia Nelson, "The Virgin of Zeitoun," Worldview 16 (September, 1973): 9.

(19) The history of these sites is drawn from early Christian tradition and the mystical visions of Pope Theophilus, the twenty-third Patriarch of Alexandria [384-412 C.E.]. It, along with a map and photographs of the sites is supplied by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism in their 1999 book, The Holy Family in Egypt. In addition, Allah Schleifer records a common, although not universal agreement among Muslim historians and religious thinkers with the Coptic rendition of the Holy Family's travels in Egypt. See Aliah Schleifer, Mary the Blessed Virgin of Islam (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1997), p. 40. Finally, Nelson makes note of the fact that these sites are frequented by both Christians and Muslims (Nelson, "Virgin," p. 9).

(20) Makari, "Christianity and Islam," p. 95.

(21) Berger, Islam in Egypt Today, p. 75.

(22) Nelson, "Virgin," p. 10.

(23) Details of the story of Mary's appearances in Zeitoun are reported in several of the sources cited in this essay. See DeVincenzo, "Apparitions"; Nelson, "Virgin"; Ronald Bullivant, "The Visions of the Mother of God at Zeitun," Eastern Churches Review, vol. 3 (1970-71), pp. 74-76; and Roy Abraham Varghese, God-Sent: A History of Accredited Apparitions of Mary (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2000), p. 85.

(24) DeVincenzo, "Apparitions," p. 5.

(25) See ibid., p. 4; and Bullivant, "Visions," p. 76.

(26) Testimonies are referenced throughout the DeVincenzo, Nelson, and Bullivant articles.

(27) Nelson, "Virgin," pp. 5-6.

(28) Excerpts of the reports by Pope Kyrillos and the government commission in English are included in DeVincenzo's "Apparitions." For an approving quotation from Patriarch Stephanos I, see Varghese, God-Sent, p. 86. A statement of approval from the papal residence in Cairo is also available online at

(29) As quoted in DeVincenzo, "Apparitions," p. 8, from Francis Johnston, When Millions Saw Mary (Chulmleigh, Devon: Augustine Publishing Co., 1980), p. 14.

(30) Ibid., p. 5.

(31) The Watani article is cited in ibid. Atwa's cure has also been widely reported by most who have written about the Zeitoun apparitions.

(32) Descriptions of the apparition can be found throughout DeVincenzo, "Apparitions," and Nelson, "Virgin." I have also incorporated information from my interview with Mary Khair, whose husband was an eyewitness to the events.

(33) DeVincenzo, "Apparitions," p. 5.

(34) Silent apparitions are not, however, completely unheard of. There were, for example, silent Marian apparitions recorded in Knock, Ireland, in 1879 and Pontmain, France, in 1871. Although, given the very different religious and political circumstances of each apparition, the reasons for the silence may also vary considerably. See Varghese, God-Sent, pp. 82-84 and 106-107, for summaries of the apparitions of Knock and Pontmain.

(35) For a comparison of the two narratives and their respective theological significances, see Maura Hearden, "Ambassador for the Word: Mary as a Bridge for Dialogue between Catholicism and Islam," J.E.S. 41 (Winter, 2004): 18-38.

(36) There are, of course, other possible explanations. Perhaps she was silent in anticipation of pilgrims from other parts of the world who would witness her apparitions but spoke other languages and so could not have understood a verbal message. Or perhaps she was using the unique power of silence to attract the attention of a noisy, distracted world. We would have to ask her to know for sure.

(37) Nelson, "Virgin," p. 9.

(38) lbid, p. 8.

(39) Again, for a more thorough examination of Mary as a Fens through which to discover various theological positions, see Hearden, "Ambassador for the Word."

(40) It is worth noting, at this point, DeVincenzo's statement regarding the novelty of Muslim-Christian communal prayer related at note 4, above.

(41) Bullivant, "Visions," p. 75. It is worth noting that, as Bullivant's article points out, the demographics of the area resulted in crowds comprised of a majority of Muslims.

(42) Ibid.

(43) Ibid., p. 76.

(44) David A. Kerr, "Islamic Da 'wa and Christian Mission: Towards a Comparative Analysis," International Review of Mission 89 (April, 2000): 150.

(45) Ataullah Siddiqui, Christian-Muslim Dialogue in the Twentieth Century (Basingstoke, Hamps., U.K., and New York: Palgrave Macmillan; and New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), p. 70.

(46) Ibid., p. 70. This sentiment is also expressed in the editorial of International Review of Mission 65 (October, 1976): 373.

(47) Siddiqui, Christian-Muslim Dialogue, p. 70. All qur'anic translations in this essay are taken from Mohammed Marmaduke Piekthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (New York: Penguin Group, n.d.).

(48) Siddiqui, Christian-Muslim Dialogue, p. 76.

(49) As quoted in ibid., p. 76.

(50) lbid., p. 75.

(51) Pontifical Council for lnterreligious Dialogue, Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflection and Orientation on lnterreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; available at

(52) Khurram Murad as quoted in Siddiqui, Christian-Muslim Dialogue, p. 76, from Interview, September 30, 1991, p. 2.

(53) 1sma'il al-Faruqi, "On the Nature of Islamic Da'wah," International Review of Mission 65 (October, 1976): 391.

(54) Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol. 3, The Dramatis Personae: The Person in Christ, tr. Graham Harrison (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1992 [orig.: Theodramatik: Zweiter Band: Die Personen des Spiels, Tell 2: Die Personen in Christus (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1978)]), p. 535.

(55) Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone: The Way of Revelation (London: Sheed and Ward, 1968 [orig.: Glaubhaft ist nut Liebe (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1963)]), pp. 122-123.

(56) For further discussion on this aspect of Balthasar's thought, see his short book, Razing the Bastions, tr. Brian McNeil (San Francisco, CA: Communio Books, Ignatius Press, 1993). Also see Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 1, Seeing the Form, tr. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1967), p. 168, which speaks of the "interior religious light which falls from God-seeking souls on the historical forms of non-Biblical religions."

(57) Joseph Ratzinger, "Christian Universalism: On Two Collections of Papers by Hans Urs yon Balthasar," Communio 22 (Fall, 1995): 556.

(58) Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, tr. Andree Emery (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 184.

(59) These concepts are discussed in detail throughout the Marian chapters of ibid.

(60) Ibid., p. 185.

(61) Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mary for Today, tr. Robert Nowell (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 63.

(62) Balthasar, The Office of Peter, p. 208.

(63) Ratzinger, "Christian Universalism," p. 551.

(64) Balthasar, TheoDrama, vol. 3, p. 291.

(65) For more detailed development of these ideas, see James Heft, "Marian Themes in the Writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar," Communio 7 (Summer, 1980): 130.

(66) See Balthasar, TheoDrama, vol. 3, p. 348.

(67) See ibid., pp. 323-324 (quote on p. 323).

(68) See 'Ali Jum'a Muhammad's introduction to Schleifer, Mary, p. 15.

(69) Siddiqui, Christian-Muslim Dialogue, p. 58. Section 1:1-2:1 of Kerr, "Islamic Da'wa and Christian Mission," addresses the relationship among prayer, morality, and da'wah.

(70) Schleifer, Mary, p. 55.

(71) Ibid., pp. 25-30.

(72) Ibid., pp. 28 and 31.

(73) Ibid., p. 31.

(74) Ibid., p. 57. For those unfamiliar with the qur'anic account, Sura 19 tells us that Mary asked the angel how she, a virgin, could possibly conceive.

(75) Kerr, "Islamic Da 'wa and Christian Mission," section 2:0.

(76) Ibid.; section 2:1 discusses the multiple dimensions of "enjoining what is right" and "forbidding what is wrong."

(77) Da 'wah is effected by reasoned argument or convincing and the good example of the lives of believers. For a discussion, see al-Faruqi, "On the Nature," p. 391.

(78) As quoted in Schleifer, Mary, p. 61, from his Maryam al-Batal: Mithal al-Umra al-I'lanun (Cairo: Dar al-An.Sar, 1978), p. 112.

(79) Schleifer, Mary, p. 32.

(80) Ibid.

(81) Ibid., p. 33.

(82) Ibid., p. 38.

(83) Ibid., p. 59.

Maura Hearden (Roman Catholic) has a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point; an M.F.A. from the University of Florida, Gainesville; and an M.A. in theology and a Ph.D. in religious studies (2008), specializing in systematic theology, from Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI. Since 2008, she has been an assistant professor of theology at DeSales University, Center Valley, PA. At Marquette and the University of Florida, she was a graduate teaching assistant. Her articles have appeared in Spiritual Lift (Summer, 2003), J.E.S. (Winter, 2004), American Catholic Studies (Fall, 2005), and Pro Ecclesia (Winter, 2010). With V. Kimball, she edited and contributed articles to Mary, for the Love and Glory of Gnd: Essays on Mary and Ecumenism (Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, through AuthorHouse, 2011); and Mary, God-Bearer to a World in Need, forthcoming from Pickwick Publications. She has also presented papers to several academic conferences, most recently at the International Pontifical Marian Academy in Rome, and has spoken before numerous parish and campus groups.
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Date:Jun 22, 2012
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