BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNS) — The feast of the Annunciation, March 25, has been recognized in Lebanon as a national holiday, and one of its most vigorous promoters is a Muslim.
Sheik Mohammed Nokkari, who teaches in the faculty of law and at the Institute of Islamic-Christian Studies at St. Joseph University in Beirut, told Catholic News Service Mary is “the best woman ever, here (on earth) and in eternity. She’s above all women.”
The feast of the Annunciation marks the moment when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus. All government offices, schools and banks will be closed each year for the holiday, and the Lebanese government has encouraged private business to close as well.
Although Sheik Nokkari had long participated in Muslim-Christian dialogue and had lectured extensively on the issue, “I felt something in my heart telling me that Mary is the one who is going to unite us,” he said.
Sheik Nokkari was one of the organizers for an annual gathering of Muslims and Christians on the feast of the Annunciation at the College of Our Lady of Jamhour, an area outside of Beirut, under the theme, “Together Around Our Lady Mary.” Last year, about 1,000 people participated.
Even though Islam differs over the nature of Jesus — who, for Christians, is divine in nature — the Gospel and the Quran both say that Jesus was born of Mary, who was still a virgin.
Sheik Nokkari’s affection for Mary is not unusual. Anyone who makes a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa will notice Muslims among the pilgrims.
“God gave us Eve, as the mother of humanity,” Sheik Nokkari explained. “He also gave us another mother, a tender and uniting mother who is our Mother Mary.”
There is no doctrinal objection from the Muslim religion to celebrate Mary as a social celebration, Sheik Nokkari said.
But last year when he and others asked the Lebanese government that March 25 be declared a national holiday, the grand mufti of Dar el-Fatwa — Lebanon’s highest Sunni Muslim religious authority — prohibited him from going to the gathering at Jamhour that year.
Instead, Sheik Nokkari published in a newspaper the speech he planned to deliver at the event, in which he had asked the government for a national day to honor the March 25 feast. A few months later the sheik resigned as Dar el-Fatwa’s director general, a post he held for 13 years.
In a statement at that time Sheik Nokkari said: “I intend to work more than ever to promote my efforts on behalf of Islamic-Christian dialogue, a touchstone of our Lebanese system, and continue to defend freedom of expression everywhere and with all my strength.”
He said the grand mufti’s order was a political issue, not a religious issue.
He said that when the official decision of the national holiday was announced during a Feb. 20 meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, “the first feeling I had was to offer this victory to Our Lady ‘Sitna Mariam’ (as she is known by Muslims), and I asked the organizers and all who participated in this not to take any credit, but to offer it to Our Lady. … Our Lady gave us this day. It is not us who is giving it to her.”
Sheik Nokkari’s hope is that such a holiday will spread to other parts of the world, but he said it was fitting that it began in Lebanon, which Pope John II described as “a message of pluralism for the East and the West.”
The Maronite Catholic Council of Bishops lauded the government’s decision, saying it “helps in bringing hearts together.”
“It is a unique event which deserves praise,” the bishops said. “It shows the face of Lebanon (as) ‘the message’ and the place and honor occupied by the Virgin Mary in Christianity and Islam.”
Former Polish President Lech Walesa was to be in Lebanon for the holiday as guest speaker for the “Together Around Our Lady Mary” gathering at Jamhour. Walesa has a deep devotion to Mary.
A garden in Beirut also will be inaugurated March 25. A statue in the garden will depict the “Together Around Our Lady Mary” logo: a stylized face of Mary, with the crescent moon, the symbol of Islam, as her veil.