By Heather Abraham
While most Muslim Turks labored to complete their first week of Ramadan during a record breaking heat wave, two branches of Christianity celebrated the August 15th Feast of the Assumption at prominent Christian pilgrimage sites. In Western Turkey, Capuchin Catholic Priests celebrated the Feast of the Assumption at the Our Lady of Ephesus Shrine (Meryem Ana) and in the Black Sea region, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of some 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, presided over the Assumption Mass at Sumela Monastery in Trabzon, Turkey.
I had the privileged of visiting Our Lady of Ephesus last week and spent some time at the shrine speaking with the nuns who were preparing for the event which attracts thousands of Christian and Muslim pilgrims annually. A highly revered figure in Christianity and Islam, Mary’s Assumption is an interreligious celebration at the Ephesus shrine. For years, Muslim pilgrims flocked to Our Lady of Ephesus desiring the opportunity to participate in the Catholic celebration. In order to accommodate the Muslim pilgrims, Catholic officials added an ecumenical Feast of the Fruits in which both Christian and Muslim pilgrims participate communally. Afterward, officiating priests celebrate Mass exclusively for Catholic participants. The flexible attitude of the Catholic guardians of the shrine ensured that Mary’s House continues its ecumenical legacy, embracing the interfaith pilgrims who make the journey to celebrate Mary’s earthly life and the event of her Assumption. Our Lady of Ephesus has long been a sacred site that affords pilgrims the opportunity to peacefully venerate the Virgin Mary of the New Testament and the Quran in a welcoming atmosphere.
In contrast, the Sumela Monastery is struggling to reestablish a safe environment for pilgrims who venture to a region that has been somewhat hostile to members of the Christian faith. Located in Trabzon, a hotbed for Turkish nationalism and conservative Muslims, the opening of the Sumela Monastery has met with some opposition from local residents who worry that the resumption of Christian pilgrimage to the monastery may threaten their Turkish-Muslim identity.
The Sumela Monastery was established in 386 CE after several monks found a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary (believed to have been painted by St. Luke) in a cave on a mountain near the Black Sea. The icon reportedly possessed miraculous healing powers and as a result, Sumela became an important destination for Christian pilgrims for centuries; renowned for its beauty and as a sacred site dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Following the Ottoman conquest of the region in 1461, Sultan Mehmet II granted the Sumela Monastery protection which continued through a succession of Sultans up to the break-up of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Sumela was temporarily occupied by Russia from 1916-1918 and was eventually abandoned during the population exchange between Greece and the new Republic of Turkey in 1923.
Sunday’s liturgy marked the first mass to be held at Sumela since 1923 and attracted thousands of Orthodox Christians from Russia, Georgia, and Greece. Security concerns were high and Turkish gendarmes joined local police in securing the area for the thousands of pilgrims who gathered to witness the historic event.
As Mary is a revered figure and Christians are respected in Islam as “people of the book”, one has to wonder why this disparate reaction exists between the two Turkish regions. And yet, I can’t help but see the similarities in events in the United States where the population is split over the “Ground Zero Mosque” complex. For some, it appears, patriotism and nationalism have become so deeply embedded with one’s religious identity that religious tolerance is no longer an option. For others, religious tolerance is understood to be a necessary element in an increasingly interrelated and interdependent world.