Whenever I visit Damascus, I try to make a courtesy call on each of its religious leaders. Besides paying my respects to the Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs and the apostolic nuncio, I usually ask to be received by the Grand Mufti of Syria.
The mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Kaftaro, is the spiritual leader of Sunni Muslims in that republic. An elderly man, he has devoted much of his life to improving relations between Muslims and all believers.
On 28 January, he sent his grandson a signal honor to bring me and my three associates to a meeting with him.
Much to my surprise, when we reached the muftis Abu Nur headquarters, instead of escorting us up the stairs to his study, his grandson asked us to take off our shoes a certain indication that we were about to enter the mosque.
It was noon on Friday, the day of Muslim observance. The mosque was carpeted with men, literally thousands, sitting on the floor, while other men and women looked down from tiers of galleries.
Although the service had already begun, the Muftis grandson led us down the center, making a way among the worshippers. We were given special places in the front, next to the great central dais upon which the sheikh was seated.
Even simultaneous translation into English had been arranged for us and small radio receivers were at our chairs.
The mufti began to speak. He welcomed me as a representative of the Vatican and the American Catholic Church! Then, he set the theme of his sermon:
How necessary is solidarity and mutual understanding among the followers of Muhammad, Jesus and Moses.
Confronted by the problems and evils of the modern world, all believers in the one God must stand together as brothers, he said. We are all children of Abraham.
During his long discourse, the sheikh spoke of Mary, the only woman mentioned in the Quran. He told his congregation how the Prophet Muhammad taught them to respect Christians.
It was truly extraordinary. Everyone in the mosque hung on his every word.
When he and another speaker concluded, he invited me to speak too! My words were translated into Arabic over loudspeakers in the mosque.
After expressing condolences for Syria was mourning the recent tragic death of the presidents son I told them what a treasure they had in their mufti.
If we could behold the throne of God, I said, surely we would see Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and all the prophets gathered around it. And, if we come one day to paradise, surely we will be all together with them. So truly we must seek to be together in this world.
If the one God sends different messengers to us over the years, I added, how can the messages be contradictory? We are the ones responsible for division and misunderstanding, because in appearance, language and ways we are strange one to another.
Strangest and most wonderful of all the mufti and a Catholic priest together speaking of God to the children of Islam.
Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA