During the month of May, Catholics around the world honor the Virgin Mary in a practice dating back to the 13th century. But at one shrine to Mary in Harissa, Lebanon, it isn’t just Catholics coming to pray.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon has drawn Muslim visitors since it opened in 1908, said the shrine’s rector, Father Younen Obeid, in a recent video produced by Catholic News Service. They come as tourists, but also to pray and participate in Christian ceremonies at the site.
“All of [the Muslim visitors] have big respect for Mary,” Obeid said.
This respect stems directly from the Quran, the holy book of Islam, which references Mary 37 times — even more occasions than the Bible. The 19th chapter of the Quran is in fact named after Mary and tells the story of her life and how she came to give birth to Jesus, though Islam does not hold the belief of Jesus’s divinity.
Mary has become a “symbol of unity” in Lebanon, as the BBC put it, where war, inter-religious strife and the ever-present threat of extremism might otherwise tear people apart.
The shared reverence for Mary is especially engrained in the culture of Lebanon, where Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 and visit the Harissa shrine during Mary’s month of May and throughout the year.
Randa Youssef, a Shiite Muslim woman from Beirut, told CNS she liked to come to the shrine to ask for forgiveness. “I hope she listens to us to give our prayers to God,” Youssef said.