The Syrian city of Saidnaya is a place of ancient holiness. Reputedly the Virgin Mary appeared to the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century requesting not only that a church be built there in her honor but also supplying a detailed architectural plan. Saidnaya remains highly popular with pilgrims—with Christians, of course, but also with many Muslims who come on Fridays to pay their respects to the Virgin. Believers of both kinds come for healing, women usually in quest of healthy pregnancies.
Such dual use might puzzle American or European Christians. Surely, we think, shrines are sacred to particular faiths—Lourdes for Catholics, Mecca (very strictly) for Muslims. But that exclusive attitude reflects Europe’s distinctive religious history, in which Christianity was for centuries the only religion in the landscape, or at least an overwhelming majority force.
Philip Jenkins teaches at Penn State and is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the author of The Great and Holy War and The Many Faces of Christ.