Parayain Hasan Ali, do you know where did the mother of Jesus Christ go after her son sacrificed himself on the Cross?

When he leveled accusations at the Christians for attempting to proselytize Selangor Muslims in the Damansara Utama Methodist Centre, it confirmed everyone’s worst fears. Hasan was like Ibrahim Ali – a political lunatic running amuk and ready to do any extreme act just to reap some gain from UMNO.In fact, BN leaders  sided with Hasan even though he was then still in PAS. It was starting to become obvious that Hasan might straddling two ‘sampans’ or long-boats at the same time.

But to Hasan, he was like a white knight in shining armour, fighting against the purported proselytization of Muslims in the state. Somehow he could not convince the Muslims he was sincere. The majority saw him as just another political opportunist. Soon, the daily attacks against the Christians and declarations that his actions were for the good of Islam began to fall apart.

Where did the mother of Jesus Christ go after her son sacrificed himself on the Cross? She went to Kusadasi – near Ephesus that was once the glorious Roman capital of Asia Minor by the Aegean Sea – in what is now Turkey. Revelations of a German nun led researchers to zero-in on a small and simple stone house built on Solmissos Mountain here as the place where Mary lived out her last days.

The Vatican has officially recognised the finding and since then, more than five million pilgrims a year have been flocking to the shrine of Mother Mary here, to pay homage and sip the salty waters – ‘Water of Mary’ – that emerge from a spring on the holy spot, said to have curative properties. Hence, although the population of Kusadasi is a little over 60,000 it swells to more than half a million during summer with migrant workers and service providers coming in to meet tourism requirements. Kusadasi is also a much sought-after beach destination, attracting holidaymakers from Europe as well as other parts of Turkey.

 Water As Prasadam

Armed with an empty bottle – I’d paid through my nose for a litre of drinking water as vendors made hay under the Mediterranean sun  that summer of 2000 – I jostled past the devout to fill up on the magical waters for a Catholic friend in Delhi who made me promise I  would return with the precious prasadam. That June, my sisters and I had taken our parents on a Mediterranean cruise to celebrate  their 60th wedding anniversary.

The journey began at Barcelona and concluded in Istanbul. The last-but-one stop was Kusadasi, a place we’d admittedly never heard of  until we poured over the itinerary that included Monte Carlo, Livorno, Naples, Venice and Athens, besides the pilgrimage destination and  finally, Istanbul that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. The name Kusadasi means Bird Island (it’s also called Pigeon Island), as  the peninsula that juts into the Aegean is bird-shaped. Kus is bird and Ada, island – which explains why locals refer to it as ‘Ada’ for  short.

 Visiting Mary’s Home

Why did Mary choose to come here, I asked our guide, Asil Tunger. (Asil means noble, he informed us). His smile deepened the dimples  on his cheeks as he proceeded to tell the story: When the crucified Christ sensed his life on earth was drawing to a close, he whispered  to John, his devoted follower – who later came to be described by some as the “most beloved” disciple of Christ – that he should take  care of his mother, “to love, honour, comfort and care for her as would a dear son”. What greater confidence could be reposed on  John, who’d stayed by the side of Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion, followed in his footsteps as he  bore the cross up the hill, and wept under the cross as his idol got nailed to it by his prosecutors?

So Mary, led by St John, found herself travelling toward Ephesus, to settle in a little house on a mountain also known as ‘Bulbul’  mountain, nine km ahead of the capital city and 27 km from Kusadasi, away from the hustle and bustle of commercial towns.


Her home, built in Roman architectural style, set in verdant surroundings with pine, fig and peach trees, is now a much venerated shrine. It includes a church in the room that Mary prayed in and her grave.

In what was an ante room, candles are proposed to the holy mother as the faithful give thanks and express their wishes. The room with a fireplace is now a chapel for Muslims. The kitchen area was restored in the 1940s. In the two-storied house, today only the central portion and a room to the right of the altar are open to visitors.

“What’s that over there,” I ask Asil, pointing to what looked like a crater. “It used to be filled with water for that’s where full-immersion catechism used to take place,” he says. Asil tells us that the first Pope to visit here was Paul VI, in the 1960s. It was Pope John Paul II who came here in the 1980s who declared the shrine of Virgin Mary as a pilgrimage destination. The faithful who line up here include Christians and Muslims, besides tourists. Each year, on August 15, a ceremony and feast commemorate Mary’s Assumption (Assunta Mary).

St John’s Basilica

A Galilean fisherman’s son, St John is one of the 12 apostles chosen by Jesus, and is widely regarded as author of the Fourth Gospel (though he is not identified by name), the Book of Revelation and the three letters that are known as the Epistle and which reportedly carries his name.

St John is believed to have travelled these parts around Ephesus in the course of his mission as evangelist to spread Christianity. He could have spent his last years in the area – it is unclear how and when he died – and was buried here as indicated by a marble tomb in the southern slope of Ayosolug Hill, 19 km north of Kusadasi, at the entrance to the town of Selcuck.

A chapel was built here that Emperor Justinian turned into a beautiful basilica sometime in sixth century CE. No longer extant, archaeologists say that the stone-and-brick basilica was created in the shape of a cross covered by six domes; the central dome was over St John’s grave. It became a mosque after the 14th century Turkish invasion but most of it got destroyed in an earthquake soon after.

Triangle Of Faith

“Excavations are going on,” informs Asil as he takes us to a high point from where he asks us to regard what he calls the “triangle”. He was right; it was a triangle of faith for, from the tomb of St John, you could see the Temple of Artemis (“that mounted to the clouds”), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the mosque, the three spanning some 2,100 years of eventful happenings recorded as history.

Of the 126 pillars of Artemis, only one lone pillar stands today, testimony to a past that is hard to ignore. Mary spent her last days in Kusadasi, cared for by St John and other followers, until she “ascended directly to Heaven”.

As we weave our way through crowds of visitors, pilgrims and vendors toward our next stop, Ephesus, I held close to my chest the bottle of holy water and the rosary I’d bought for my friend, and sent up a silent prayer, grateful for the privilege of treading the same ground as did Mary, albeit nearly two millennia afterwards.
These three Semitic religions have co-existed socially, are scripturally inclusive but have been historically exclusive. In the past few days, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia has called for the destruction of all churches in the Arabian Peninsula. Such an aggressive statement only serves to embolden Muslim religious fanaticism in an age that is moving away from religious exclusivism towards religious pluralism.

Societies and religious authorities that cannot envision the future multicultural shape of the world can only sow the seeds of their own ruin. Such a statement by the grand mufti stands in direct contrast to the Prophet Muhammad’s offering of personal guarantees on protection of the Christian faith in his promise to Christians on freedom of worship and movement, freedom to appoint their own judges and to own and maintain their churches and property. The case of St. Catherine’s Monastery of Mount Sinai is one example. The Prophet’s hospitality towards the Christians of Najran is another case in point, as he allowed those Christians to worship in his mosque in spite of doctrinal disagreements.

The statement by the Saudi mufti has grave implications. What if the Pope and the leaders of other religions called for the destruction of mosques in their countries? The fact is that many Muslim governments and associations are actively involved in constructing mosques in non-Muslim countries, without facing much hindrance.

There has to be equal Muslim reciprocation when it comes to the construction of churches and temples, for the freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Koran: “For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, all monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques – in all of which God’s name is abundantly extolled – would surely have been destroyed” (Koran 22:40). The founders of religions are universalist and inclusivist; it is the followers who discriminate in the name of religion, giving it a bad name.

The Arab Spring was led by the largely unemployed Arab youth, the subalterns, the middle-class poor, and suppressed political groups. It was a revolt against authoritarian rulers who applied the divide-and-rule policy. Besides political freedom, it was also a call for building a pluralist Middle East. It started from mosques and churches and was engaged in by Muslims and Christians united against oppression.

One of the events behind the anti-Mubarak Egyptian revolt was the suicide attack on a Coptic church on New Year’s Day 2011. And on the “Friday of Rage” on January 28, 2011, 26 mosques and seven churches were the rallying points from which protestors marched onto the Tahrir Square.

Christian communities face discrimination in both Muslim countries and Israel. They feel that they are being treated as second-class citizens. As a result, they are emigrating in large numbers. So far these people have supported authoritarian regimes in the Middle East for the sake of their security. The problem of minorities in the Muslim world can only be addressed through the formation of civil states that protect the rights of minorities through the powers of the executive, legislative and judiciary.

These civil states should not merely guarantee religious freedom constitutionally, but must also see that religious leaders encourage tolerance and inclusivism, and repel religious extremism. This requires Muslims and non-Muslims to become tolerant, open-minded, trustworthy and overcome the mutual biases and prejudices spread by those holding the reins of power, be they in politics, religion or academia.

The ideal future democratic Middle East will have to be a united entity but ideologically diverse and multi-religious, where minorities have the freedom to practice their religions and enjoy the protection of their faiths and institutions. Discrimination in the name of religion should have no place. Such an option is favored by a majority of Middle-Easterners but there remain some groups who oppose this.

This requires the development of the Islamic philosophy of democracy, which promotes the formation of a civil state and not an Islamic state. Historically, there has never been any model Islamic state that Muslims can emulate. The social contract of Medina drawn up by the Prophet Muhammad in 622 CE did not mention the term dawlah, or state, in Arabic; rather it was a charter concerning managing inter-group relations between Muslims, Arab pagans and the Jewish community in Medina. The term was also not used during the rule of the first four caliphs. It came into usage during the Abbasid Caliphate in the 8th century. The term “Islamic state” was given ideological colouring in the post-colonial era, which saw the establishment of secular Muslim nation states. It was used by religious nationalists to rebut the capitalist, socialist and communist models.

The Arab Spring revolutions triggered by economic, political and social factors are not centred around the demand for an Islamic state, nor jihad. The demands are for social justice, human dignity and human rights, gender equality, economic and food security, and religious freedom for all. This reality is forcing political thinkers in the Muslim world – from Morocco to Indonesia – to examine and rethink the shape of possible pluralism in Muslim polities today. They are forced to come up with pluralistic models of a Muslim state suitable for the contemporary age.

This challenge is not an easy task, especially in the face of ongoing instability, continuing economic hardship and differing views about the shape of the post-authoritarian Middle East. This is a test for the Islamic parties that have won a majority of seats in the new parliaments.

The contemporary Arab revolutions are going to affect all Middle-Eastern countries, even those that are trying to deflect them or change their course. Issues of political pluralism, religious freedom and the status of minorities are crucial issues facing all Middle-Eastern countries including Israel. This matter has global implications for the Muslim world both as a religious community and as a member of world civilisation.



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