There is little doubt that religion has always represented, from primordial times, a powerful cultural force unifying diverse and disparate people. It seems to be a permanent feature of human nature of conceiving one’s identity. Jung, who had studied most of the major ones and researched them all over the world for psychological reasons, arriving at the concept of archetypes which they all seem to possess, is known to have observed that “throw religion out the door and it will come back through the back window as a pernicious cult of sort or an ideology.” It seems to be indispensable, even in practical political life, even in places where a powerful ideology controls every aspect of a people’s life. This is what terrorists have grasped while those who condemn anybody who practices a religion, or any religion for that matter, as an unenlightened retrograde obscurantist (Voltaire was one of those “enlightened” men) have failed to realize a very simple philosophical principle of Thomas Aquinas: the abuse does not obviate the use.
In effect, the ideology often enough sees itself in conflict with religion, which it considers just another misguided unenlightened rival ideology, and persecutes it or makes it illegal. We saw that phenomenon in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1989); we continue to see it in China today where Communism is still holds the reigns of political power. Going back to ancient times, we saw that in the persecution of the Christians in Rome. They were persecuted for being perceived as competing ideologues subversive to the imperialistic interests of the Roman Empire, refusing to serve in the Roman army. All that changed once the Empire became Christian under Constantine. But we’ll return to that.
Besides Christianity, with which most people in the West are vaguely familiar, since by now good old paganism seems to be on its way back, one thinks of Islam which managed to unify the various wandering tribes of the Desert into one powerful civilization, in some ways superior, at the time at least, even to that of the West still struggling to emerge from the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire (the superiority residing in medicine and architecture, and, to some extent, philosophy). One thinks of Confucianism and Buddhism which did the same in the Far East, giving rise to the hegemony of Chinese and Japanese civilization in the area. One thinks of Hinduism unifying the whole Indian subcontinent. And the list goes on. With no religion, the tendency seems to be for centrifugal forces to take over and destroy any sign of unity and adherence to common values and traditions.
Historically, we know that beginning with the third century AD the Roman Empire, with the advent of semi-deranged emperors such as Caligula and Nero the Roman Empire, at least in its western part, appeared doomed to decline and eventual destruction, as in fact happened eventually. The political genius of a Constantine resides in the fact that he became increasingly aware that religion could be the force that would keep the centrifugal forces at work in the Empire, at bay for a while; a sort of cultural glue. So he embraces Christianity and basically requires that everybody in the Empire become a Christian. To refuse was equivalent to showing disrespect for the Emperor. People remembered too well the fate of those Christians who refused to throw incense at the statue of the Emperor.
In effect, you now have a Christian empire with the Emperor as the supreme ruler in temporal matters while the Pope is the supreme ruler in spiritual matters. It seemed to be a perfect arrangement and it did in fact keep the Empire going for a while longer. The problem was that the unity was so powerful and unshackled that the crucial distinction between spiritual matters and temporal matters began to disappear. In medieval times the power of the Church reached a culminating point when a bishop could be both a temporal ruler and a spiritual leader.
The Pope allegedly inherited one third of Italy, the very center of the peninsula, from Constantine, the so called “donation of Constantine,” in reality this was a fraudulent claim. Dante puts three Popes in hell for failing to distinguish the temporal from the spiritual. This state of affairs persists till the 16th century. In Italy it does not end till the 19th century when Italy becomes a unified country and the Pope is stripped of all temporal power, except for a symbolical vestige named Vatican City (see Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo), given to him, almost nobles oblige, by the dictator Benito Mussolini. Thus the principle of separation of temporal power and spiritual power was upheld in some form and everybody saved face.
In the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the so called Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople (present day Istanbul), things go on as usual for another thousand years or so, with the patriarch of Constantinople in charge of spiritual affairs and the eastern Emperor in charge of temporal affairs. In effect the one who called the shots, even in spiritual matters, was the one who held the temporal power and controlled the army: the Emperor. The patriarch, an equal with within the descendants of the apostles, which includes the bishop of Rome, the Pope, was merely the representative and the defender of the faith; a spiritual function. In more pragmatic Machiavellian terms, however, the real defender of the faith was the Byzantine Roman army which in the 4th crusade failed to defend the city from the invading Christians from the West on their way to free Jerusalem from the infedel Moslems. On passant, they did a little pillaging in Constantinople, a Christian city. So much for spiritual values and the brotherhood of all Christian, not to speak of that of all humans…Even the Pope at the time was horrified by this gross event and exclaimed about the Crusaders’ army: “no wonder the Greeks call them dogs.”
To continue the narration, Hagias Sophia’s, the largest and most beautiful Church in the world at the time, remained is a Christian Church till the end of the Byzantine Empire and the advent of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. It is now a museum surrounded by minarets. Obviously there are religious wars, and they spill over into cultural wars, better known as Crusades, and there are winners and there are losers, but religion (be it Christian or be it Moslem) remains a powerful cement to keep people’s allegiance, even patriotism, alive and well and to better camouflage one’s real political intentions.
Some have said that the problem with religion is that it produces too many fanatics; and such an opinion may express a valid point. But this can only be so in as much as religion too can be interpreted and presented as just another political ideology. When that happens, religions tend to vie with each other as ideologies have tended to do from time immemorial. Enter Marx with his “religion is the opium of the people” or Mao with his “religion is poison.” The Machiavellian stratagem of the more astute politicians among us is to manipulate them and pit one against the other. One uses them as ideological tools while remaining in control and pulling the political string at all times. One manages to promote one’s ideology, civilization, even nationalism through religion. One manages even to appear pious and holy.
For example at the recent meeting in Moscow to honor the 70th birthday of its Orthodox patriarch Cyril, a letter of invitation was sent out inviting all the Orthodox patriarchs together with the most important figures of the Orthodox Church. None of them failed to show up, albeit some came more enthusiastically and more entourage than others. This was hailed by some orthodox Christians as a great show of unity and cooperation within the Orthodox Church, even a good omen and a joyous prelude to eventual reunion with the Western Catholic Church. What seems to be forgotten is that the celebration took place in Moscow and the invitation had the blessing, so to speak, of a pious orthodox Christian who often goes on pilgrimages to Orthodox sacred places, while at the same time gobbling up Crimea, or parts of Ukraine or part of Georgia while eyeing the Baltic countries, former satellites of the Soviet Union with large Russian populations of which he has proclaimed himself the champion. It appears that none dared to disrespect the blessing of such a pious but powerful member of the Orthodox Church, or even impugn his real motives.
You get the point. We are talking here about the politics of religion. Like Constantine, one can use religion for one’s ideological and political agenda. Since Communism as it is, can no longer be revived in Russia, probably not even in Italy, one can still bring back the past glories of Russia as expressed via the Orthodox Church and showing the great respect for traditional values, all lost in those Epicurean hedonistic societies in the European Union and the United States of America. One may even be able to convince oneself, with all those yearly holy pilgrimages, that one is a genuine peace-loving Christian and not a mere astute ideologue. It worked quite well for Constantine; why should it not work for Mr. Putin? But Christ’s injunction remains: “By their fruits you shall know them.” So, keep your eyes and ears open.
The House of Mary
1820, Westphalia: Clemens Brentano sits next to her bed. Two years ago he moved to the city of Dülmen in Westphalia to be with her every day. With a notebook in his hands, he keeps notes of her visions, dreams and becomes her personal assistant. The German Romantic poet took the decision to stand next to Anna Katerina Emmerick, a young woman in the countryside who had been stuck for decades in her bed. She herself saw for years visions which concerned the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ and described everything in every detail. Clemens holds detailed notes and in 1835, 11 years after Anna Katerina’s death, he will publish his first book with her visions, “The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In 1842, after his death, another work with her visions entitled “The Life of Virgin Mary” will be published.
1891: Smyrna French Hospital, Ottoman Empire: Marie de Mandat Grancey, a member of the Daughters of Charity s run by the French Hospital of Smyrna, is dining at the Hospital’s dining room. There she will hear an excerpt from the books with Anna Katerina’s visions and ask two Lazarist missionaries, Fathers Poulin and Jung, to visit the point mentioned in the book as the last house of the Virgin Mary.
They began their mission on July 29, 1891, holding in their hands the excerpt of the book, ready to find every detail. Going to the Sirince area in Ephesus and going up Mount Bülbüldağı (Koressos) will stop asking a woman for water. She will tell them that they can find water a few miles further in the springs of the Monastery. After a few hours they will find themselves in front of the ruins of a monastery and a house where it will fit Anna Katerina’s descriptions. There She lived in the last years of her life, Our Lady, the Mother of Christ after His Crucifixion when she followed St. John. There she lived until the day of the Dormition (according to the Orthodox doctrine) and the Assumption (according to the Catholic doctrine) to Heaven.
The missionaries are returning to announce the news and their discovery. In August 1891, two more “missions” will begin for the place where Mother Mary’s House, Meryem Ana Evi, was discovered. They wanted to be sure they had found the right place.
In 1882, Archbishop Smyrna, Timoni, will visit the site where he will recognize the similarities with Anna Katerina’s narratives and begin the procedures for officially recognizing the part of the Catholic Church. Until then, the place was known as Panagia Kapoulou.
2018: A mini bus begind from Kusadasi and has as destination the location of Meryem Ana Evi, 7 km from Selçuk. An announcement has been made a long time ago so that the Temple Management Association (Dernek) can reserve the bus” for specific times of arrival and departure. Inside the bus, you’ll see a mosaic of tourists keeping their camera tightly, believers holding their rosaries and crosses in hands, women with foulards and the Quran in their bag. Most of them hold tightly the papers that have written their wishes. The desire is usually one: to bring to life the baby. And where else will they ask for it except for Mother Mary?
In 2015, filmmaker Manoël Pénicaud, along with his team, visited Meryem Ana Evi. In his camera he will speak, Paolo Pugliese, Capuchin Friar serving in the Temple. The Order of the Capuchins took over the care and management of the place in 1966, after the invitation of the Archbishop Smyrna, Alfred Cuthbert OFMCap Gumbinger. Sitting in a simple coffee table and wearing the Capuccino brown tunic, Paolo Pugliese will talk about his experience in Turkey.
“Virgin Mary is a woman. The main feature of a woman in every respect is a welcome and motherhood. She is here as a mother and as a woman who welcomes her children, both Christians and Muslims.”
While it’s heavy winter, the camera shows people in jacket and coat coming to pray. Outside the temple, there is the spot where candles light. Christians and Muslims lit their candles side by side with reverence and tranquility. Inside the shrine, Christins and Muslims attend the mass in Italia. Muslim women pay in their knees. At the entrance there is a large sign with extracts from the Qur’an that mention Virgin Mary and emphasize Her significance.
“I touched the paper on the wall and at that moment I realized that until that day I had not understood how much the world suffered. How many misery and needs there have been out there. How many personal tragedies!“The wall is full of papers. “The wall is the connection of the prayers of all these people.”
A few years ago, the New York Times will dedicate a few pages to Meryem Ana Evi. Scott Spencer traveled to Turkey to be able to describe the uniqueness of the place and talk to those who visited it. Friar Matthias will explain to him, “Muslims believe that Mary or Mary was a sacred figure but not the mother of God. She was just a woman with great virtues.”
Friar Matthias will continue explaining to the reporter that Maria is mentioned more than 30 times in the Koran and refers to Surah 3, verse 37. The journalist leaving the church will meet a woman who would open her heart “I live and work in Paris but I was born in Algeria. Since I was a little girl, I believed in miracles. I come here often. I come here because I believe in Maria. I’m a muslim.”
If you ever want to visit Meryem Ana Evi, you can find more information (in five different languages) on their website: http://www.meryemana.info/ and on their Facebook page where they make announcements about the functions and times and ways of visit and masses.
The “mysterious” Jew of Tunisia
33 days after the Jewish Easter. The Jews are preparing to celebrate Lag BaOmer. The Ghriba Synagogue with its Blue Tiles on Djerba Island in Tunisia wears its festivals to welcome its faithful who come from all corners of the world to celebrate Lag BaOmer with the 1100 Jews of the island.
Jews, Christians and Muslims come to the synagogue to pray and light candles. Women sit on the floor to put their eggs there with their wishes written on them. According to the local tradition, the stone of the floor used to be in the Temple of Jerusalem. Outside of the synagogue, the musicians have not stopped playing, the dried figs of wine flow abundantly and all of them eat from a table full of fish and couscous.
The story of the Jewish community
According to the history, a large number of Jews fled to Tunisia after the first temple was destroyed by the Romans, around 500 BC. During this period the first synagogue was built. The Jews brought with them a door from the Temple as well as a stone from the altar of the Temple. Today, according to the residents of the area, both the door and the stone are placed into the “Ghriba” Synagogue.
However, the Sephardic Jews of Spain found shelter on the island of Tunisia after the persecutions suffered by King Ferdinand and Isabella. Until 1956, when Tunisia gained its independence from France, the Jews would count 100,000 of which most would live on Djerba Island in harmony with their Muslim brothers.
In Arabic, Ghriba means “mysterious”, “strange” and many wonder why this name was given to the synagogue. According to the myth that dominates the narratives, the place where the congregation was discovered at the beginning of the 19th century inhabited a young “mysterious” girl who never spoke to anyone on the island. The girl died in her cabin when it grabbed fire. Surprisingly, the Jewish residents found her body intact and, in honor of the “mysterious” girl, founded the “Ghriba” Synagogue in the Jewish village of Harah Seghira.
The Lag BaOmer feast and coexistence
The pilgrimage to Lag BaOmer attracts hundreds of Jews from all over the world. They visit the synagogue, pray and participate in the rites that take place in both days of the feast. The marches are in the form of a wedding ceremony and symbolize the secret union between the People of Israel and the Divine. Women leave eggs with the name of a single girl in the place where the girl’s body is supposed to be found. The festival includes both Jews and Muslims. Muslim neighbors help the Jews prepare the place to welcome all this crowd. They also pray in the Synagogue while Muslim women leave the same eggs with written wishes in Arabic so they can get married in the future.
Muhammad has been making mats for the congregation for 50 years. “The most important thing for us is to show that in Djerba Jews and Muslims can live together harmoniously.”
As many people leave for a nearby beach or casino, the local Jews stay in the Synagogue so they can continue their own local customs: the first haircut of a three-year-old boy or the preparation of a big and specific dinner where the whole community will sit together.
The revenue that comes from the Lag BaOmer feast is enough. All the money is for the Jewish nursing home of the village of Harah Seghira and for the maintenance of the twenty synagogues on the island.
Amal who works in Houmt’s market and goes every year to the Synagogue to worship, says “Everything is to be human. We sit here next to each other and we see no difference. “
Walking through the streets of Djerba you can not recognize the Jew by the Muslim. Only a few older Jews put a piece of black cloth at the bottom of their trousers. Mourning for the destruction of the Temple.
Over the last three decades most visitors come from places outside Tunisia. By 2015, however, Israel issued a directive to Israeli citizens not to travel to Tunisia for the annual pilgrimage for safety reasons.
Earlier in the year, the country had suffered three terrorist attacks by extremist religious organizations. Almost all the attacks were in places an hour away from the island. That year, the security measures for the pilgrimage were draconian with checkpoints all over the island, special forces scattered all over, and military trucks full of guns.
On the first day of the feast, Abdelfattah Mourou, spokesman for the moderate Muslim party Islamic Enhanda, embraced rabbi Bittan outside the synagogue and told the crowd “Tunisia is protecting its Jews. What leads to the extremes is the existence of only one culture and one culture. The existence of many cultures leads us to accept one another normally. “
The Jews of today
Today, 1100 Jews live in Djerba. According to chief rabbi Haim Bittan each year only 30 new births are made to Jewish families. In recent years, Jews have begun to leave the place not because of persecution of a religious or racial nature but because of a financial crisis.
Yisha Mamou, 24, who is a teacher at the Hebrew Kindergarten, says “I graduated economically at public high school but, like most in Tunisia, I did not have the opportunity to continue at the University. I want to leave because I have nothing to do. All I do is go back to work and work on the house. “
Until 2004, the Jewish community of Tunisia supported three elementary schools, two lyceums and a religious study school (yeshiva) as well as archbishop. A few years ago, the only Kosher restaurant was closed, and as the whole Jewish community shows, it will begin to shrink if both their own state and the community itself find ways to keep young people there.
The Muslim Saint of a Greek Orthodox city
The Albanian Bektashi Monastery of Farsala
May 1st 2017: Some hundred meters outside Farsala, in the village of Asprogia, cars start gathering early in the morning. Whole families flock to pilgrimage, take out the spit with lambs, beers freeze on portable refrigerators, and someone puts on the cd player folk dances.
“They say it was Church, they say a lot. I know just one thing. That it was and still is a holy place, “says the pilgrim to the filmmaker Manoël Pénicaud. The Durbali Tekke or otherwise, Ireni Tekke was founded according to sources in 1492. The founder, the Durbali dervish came from the Iconio area of Minor Asia. As soon as he arrived in the village Ireni (the name of the village of Asprogia during the Ottoman domination), was granted the land and the building to create a new worship site, the tekke (monastery of Islamic mysticism and souffism). Also, according to sources, today’s temple was built on the ruins of a Byzantine church dedicated to St. George.
In Manoël Pénicaud’s short film, his “tour guide” will show us a hagiography of Saint George on a wall of the teke. “Saint George is being worshipped everywhere” he will explain. Especially in the Muslim world, the warrior and fighter Saint George has a prominent place. Over the centuries, the teke will be expanded by purchasing land from various villages in the surrounding areas. Many travelers and writers, including Andreas Karkavitsas, a Greek well known novelist(1892), will describe in his experiences the functioning of the teke and its role in the harmonious religious coexistence of Christians and Muslims. Archaeologist Frederick Hasluck will record in 1914 that only twenty years ago, in 1888, there were 55 dervishes living on the teke and that the coexistence of Christians and Muslims was perfectly normal.
The blooming and preservation of the teke will bring about the disruption of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the Republic of Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk will declare the Sufi and the Dervishes fraternities illegal and chase them mercilessly. The order of the Ottomans in the administration and in the life of Tekke will be taken over by the Albanians Bektashi. Bektashism was dominant in the Balkans, and especially in Albania, where to date there is a large number of believers. The successors of the teke will keep their reins up until 1973 when the last Albanian abbot of the Monastery dies and the memory will be almost erased
The Tekes today
Few people know the presence of Teke and even fewer locals remember its story. What remains is the mosque of the monastery and the tombs of the abbots. Both the mosque and graves are preserved in a very good condition since Albanians Bektashi i try to rescue them with the help of archaeologists and conservators. The problem of preservation of the teke is due to its legal and ownership status. While belonging to a religious institution in Albania, the Land Office of Larissa is in charge of its management. The various disagreements between the parties and the legal dangers have not so far enabled the use of the amount intended for teke’s maintenance.
In recent years the Farsala Municipality has prioritized teke and its proper maintenance. With the help of experts, the Municipality investigates the violations that occur in the area and proceeds to the complaints so that the image of teke is not distorted and be rescued before it is too late. Nevertheless, the Municipality’s objective is far superior to the mere maintenance of a historical and religious monument. The Municipality sees tekke as the opportunity to create an international center of study of the peoples and religions of the Balkans for the past 5 centuries.
God does not ask what you are
Before they enter the site of funerary monuments, they take off their shoes. Young, older, young children kiss the grave with the green covers. On the outside, the tomb of Durbali Sultan and the bust of Hatzi Bektas Veli, founder of Bektashism, in the 13th century. “Bektas Veli chose the best flowers of the religions and created the Bektashism,” says the old man with redheaded cheeks.
The cinematographer Manoël Pénicaud and his team visited the teke to record these moments of love and sharing on May 2017. I was fortunate to watch his short film at the “Shared Sacred Sites” Exhibition at the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, in the last January. In a green landscape, the believer who has taken over the duties of a guide confesses to the camera “Whoever is inside this temple does not ask the one who comes, what are you? Christian or Muslim? “ At the entrance, a green sign is hanging on a tree in Greek and in Albanian “We never forget you Durballi Sultan Baba.” An old woman enters to worship Saint Durbali “Durbali is Holy to us, He is saint to all and is a miracle maker.” “Every year Christians come from nearby villages. They worship, we celebrate the Kurban (feast) all together, we clean the place. This year, Easter was on the same dates, and so, many did not manage to come. “At the entrance of the Teke, there are the holy icons of Ali, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, St. Demetrius and the Virgin Mary.
The pilgrimage ends and the feast begins. Dozens of lambs for families and for those who come to worship and celebrate together are served on plastic tables. When he turns the spit, another pilgrim will share his life story with the camera .“God is for all. It’s not just mine or yours. We are from Albania. My daughter is 17 years baptized and goes to the Church and believes and receives the Eucharist. Me too. But she wants to come here too. Nobody and nothing compels us to come here. I drove 300 kilometers to come, another one came from Albania, and another one from Chalkida. “ “I do not ask anyone if he is a Christian or a Muslim. Why shall I care? If we eat and drink together, what do I care? So I have done so far in my life and so I will continue to do. “
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