Marian Symposium Concludes in Rome

Syrian Deacon Reflects on Mary’s Significance in the Middle East

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By Ann Schneible

ROME, OCTOBER 5, 2012 ( Mary is the center of dialogue, not only between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism, but between Christianity and Islam.

This was one of the themes touched upon during the international symposium entitled “Mary, Sign of Faith (and Only Hope)”, which concluded today in Rome. Gathering together experts from around the world, the two-day symposium explored the cultural, theological, and spiritual significance of Mary throughout history.

Syrian Deacon Rami Wakim, secretary for Melkite Patriarch Gregorios III of the Damascus diocese, was one of the keynote speakers at the symposium. He spoke with ZENIT about the role of Mary in helping to promote interreligious dialogue throughout the Middle East.

ZENIT: In your talk you will be discussing Mary with regard to the Eastern tradition and Roman Catholic Tradition. Could you speak about the role of Mary as a unifying force between the Eastern and Western Rites and traditions?

Wakim: My speech is going to be about two things: this inter-Christian dialogue and Muslim-Christian dialogue.

In everyday life, people meet together at a place of worship, regardless of their background. For example, in the Middle East, Orthodox and Catholics go and [honor] the Virgin Mary. This is the starting point. From the standpoint of the faithful, they don’t see the difference: she’s the mother of God, she’s blessed, she’s a very special person, a model for all Christians, and she is always looked at as an intercessor and protector. On a practical level, there is no difference. The problem remains at the level of theological expressions and theological settings.

The Virgin Mary is gathering everyone around her, and it is a shame that on a theological level we still have unsolved problems, especially [with regard to] the Immaculate Conception. Many studies have been done on this issue, trying to explain where the difference is, and in fact there is no doctrinal difference.

Let me explain: if you look at doctrine, the way that the Eastern Church expresses it, it makes complete sense. It is logical. And if you look at how the Roman Catholic Church explains the Immaculate Conception, as a doctrine, you see that it also makes complete sense. Where is the problem?

We need a dialogue today to solve this problem, and understand that in the Eastern Tradition there is a theological setting, a different way of expressing how we believe in the immaculate nature of the Virgin Mary, and how in the Western, Roman Catholic tradition, it’s a different way. If we understand how the Eastern tradition thinks about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, we can actually get to a point to where it is not a problem anymore.

In my speech I will take liturgical texts and hymns, and try to explain how in the liturgical year the Virgin Mary is looked at as Immaculate, as intercessor, as protector, as mother of God, and all the names she’s given in the Roman Catholic Church.

ZENIT: Turning now to interreligious dialogue between Christianity and Islam, which is so important in this day in age, especially throughout the Middle East. Could you speak about Mary’s significance in this dialogue, taking into account that both Catholics and Muslims have a devotion to Mary?

Wakim: This is very important, the role of the Virgin Mary in bringing both together. In the Koran, it’s really striking the [honor] and veneration of the Virgin Mary. She’s the only woman to have a chapter named after her in the Koran, and her name is brought up 34 times. Her miraculous birth is recognized by the Koran, as is the annunciation by the angel, and the miraculous birth of Christ. There are so many things in common.

Also, visiting our Muslim friends, you see in their houses they have a special place for the Virgin Mary. She’s someone special. She’s not like any other woman on earth. She’s more honorable than every other woman in Islam.

[One example of this commonality is that the Annunciation is a national holiday]. You can take time off work, and give time to [honor] the Virgin Mary – Muslims and Christians alike. On this day every year, Christians and Muslims go on pilgrimage together to visit a Marian monument.

The Virgin Mary has a central role in bringing Christians and Muslims together.

ZENIT: You were in Lebanon during the Holy Father’s visit. Could you share your impressions? Also, as a Syrian during this time of conflict, how was Pope Benedict’s visit significant not only to Lebanon, but to the Middle East as a whole?

Wakim: As you said, it was a visit physically to Lebanon, but in a bigger [context] it was for all the Christian Middle East, and the Muslim Middle East. The fact that it happened is significant because a few days before the visit there was speculation that the Pope would cancel, and people were suggesting that he shouldn’t go, but the Pope insisted. And this in and of itself sends a very good message of hope, that the leadership of the Church is not far from the faithful, not far from the problems and conflicts. The Pope is not afraid to come. And it is during these times that we need support, and need to see that [our bishop, our Pope] is not far; he is with you.

It was very touching on a personal level to see all these people gathering just to see His Holiness, to get a blessing. Also Muslims were present just to greet the Pope. To see all these people brought together, gathered in one place, for one purpose, just to be together, sends a great message at this time.

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