Lebanon: the only country in the world to have an Islamic-Christian National Day

On March 25, Christians celebrate the Annunciation, the announcement of the immaculate conception of Jesus. How did it become a national day of dialogue for Christians and Muslims in Lebanon? And is the initiative spreading? We provide you with the answers.

An icon representing the Annunciation of Jesus’s conception on the left in the surat al-Omran and, on the right, in Saint Luke’s gospel.

Political populism has expanded around the world, from Brazil and Hungary to the United States. In each country, populist politicians have echoed and emulated each other, proudly promoting an “us versus them” worldview. The spread of this ideology has, at times, taken an extreme and violent turn. The most recent example of this occured on March 15 when a self-avowed white supremacist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

In response to the populist trend, a number of initiatives advocating dialogue, coexistence and tolerance have been started. Some have come from organizations while others are more symbolic and international in scope. One example is the “Document on Human Fraternity” signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, during a summit in Abu Dhabi in February. The document called for the freedom of belief and expression.

Among these initiatives, Lebanon holds a special place when it comes to interreligious dialogue. The country has 18 religious communities and during its 15 year civil war experienced the worst results that intercommunal hatred can produce. In response, Lebanon has tried to move beyond scattered initiatives promoting tolerance by becoming the first and only country to establish a national holiday for Islamic-Christian dialogue, which is celebrated on March 25.

Here is an overview of where this initiative came from and how it became a national holiday.

The Virgin Mary: a bridge between religions

According to the Bible, March 25 is the day that the Archangel Gabriel informed the Virgin Mary that she had divinely conceived Jesus, the son of God.

In the Quran, Gabriel did not announce that Mary was pregnant with the son of God, but with a prophet named Issa. The announcement is mentioned in two different surahs (chapters): Surah 3, al-Omran (Omran’s family), and Surah 19, the Surah of Mary (Mariam, in Arabic). The figure of Mary also appears more than 30 times in the Quran, more than the mother, wives or the daughter of the Prophet Mohammad. Her prevalence, as well as her status as the mother of a prophet, has earned her special recognition among Muslims.

This is why many Muslims visit the shrine of Our Lady of Harissa, overlooking the Bay of Jounieh about 20 km north of Beirut. Muslims also represent 5 percent of the 6 million annual visitors to the pilgrimage site in Lourdes, France where believers say the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared, according to Gerard Testard, coordinator of Ensemble avec Marie (Together with Mary), a French initiative bringing Christians and Muslims together.

The origin of the Islamic-Christian celebration

In the early 2000s, there were an increasing number of roundtables, conferences and meetings on Islamic-Christian dialogue in Lebanon. “These events were happening on a regular basis, but we formed a closed-knit club of some 100-150 members who enjoyed using great words about dialogue without having any impact on society,” Nagy el-Khoury, who was an educator with Notre-Dame de Jamhour College at the time, told L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ).

El-Khoury had grown tired of having endless conversations that didn’t yield any concrete results. During one of the interreligious dialogues, he asked Mohammad Nokkari, a former managing director of Dar el-Fatwa and renowned islamic judge in Beirut, “Can’t we just simply pray together?”

Nokkari replied that “only Mary” could bring Christians and Muslims together.

In July 2006, the two men organized an interreligious prayer. And in March 2007, on the celebration of the Annunciation, they organized the first big interreligious ceremony with 1,000 attendees from various communities. “It was an extraordinary event, seeing Muslims and Christians pray together for one common religious figure; hearing them all singing; hearing the call to prayer resonate in a church,” Nokkari told OLJ.

A delegation from al-Azhar attended the first event, and in light its success, the organizers decided to make it an annual occurrence and started pushing to turn March 25 into a national holiday. The idea was, for a change, to “work on what brings us together as opposed to what divides us,” el-Khoury said.

March 25: a national holiday

In February 2010, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced that March 25 would be a national day for Christian-Muslim dialogue. The day became a holiday in Lebanon. About 30 different organizations representing diverse constituencies gradually joined Nokkari and el-Khoury in organizing annual celebration all over Lebanon. The initiative became known as the Muslim-Christian Meeting around Mary.

A culture of dialogue beyond Lebanon

Today, the Meeting around Mary aims to “strengthen this culture and see it travel beyond Lebanese borders”. El-Khoury is currently serving as the President of the Republic’s advisor on Islamic-Christian dialogue. He said that the goal of the annual meeting is to break down barriers between communities. To this end, el-Khoury is working in his capacity as a presidential advisor to turn Lebanon into an international center for interreligious dialogue. One of the aims of this initiative is to establish an Academy for Human Dialogue, which Salim Jreissati, Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, is currently working on.

Lebanon is not an arbitrary location to host these kinds of initiatives, according to el-Khoury. “Lebanon is one of the few countries where we can find a real mix. It’s not an Islamic country in which Christians live, nor vice-versa,” he said. “Despite issues and problems, Christians and Muslims live together naturally.”

The dialogue initiatives centered on Mary are gradually gaining ground. Nokkari has been criticized and faced threats from Islamists for his involvement in the project, and some Christian extremists have also accused the Meeting of stealing the Annunciation holiday. “Most of the time, it is more about misunderstanding than opposition,” Nokkari said. “For instance, the use of the term ‘prayer’ was problematic for Salafists and Wahhabis who thought that it was a liturgical prayer. We prefer, henceforth, to talk of the ‘invocation’ of Mary; same thing for people who didn’t understand that it could be a national holiday, thinking instead that we wanted to add a new religious holiday to the two big celebrations of al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) and al-Fitr (marking the end of Ramadan).”

On the other hand, el-Khoury emphasized that “politics often plays the role of troublemakers”.

For his part, Nokkari is looking for new opportunities to create bridges between the communities. The next step may be inviting Christians to participate in the al-Adha celebration. Abraham, after all, is an important figure for both Christians and Muslims, Nokkari said.

Regionally, the first event of this kind was organized in Amman, Jordan last year, and the country is looking to establish a national day for dialogue as well, according to el-Khoury and Nokkari.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 25th of March)

Political populism has expanded around the world, from Brazil and Hungary to the United States. In each country, populist politicians have echoed and emulated each other, proudly promoting an “us versus them” worldview. The spread of this ideology has, at times, taken an extreme and violent turn. The most recent example of this occured on March 15 when a self-avowed white supremacist...