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Honoring the Baptist

NCR Staff
Damascus, Syria

When Pope John Paul II made history May 5 by being the first pope to enter an Islamic mosque, he did so in a spot uniquely suited to symbolize interreligious dialogue.

The Grand Mosque of Omayyadi, located in the heart of Old Damascus, is built on the site of an old Roman temple to Jupiter. Later, the Christian church of St. John the Baptist was erected under the Emperor Theodosius, thus it represents a form of Christianity that dates back well before the Catholic-Orthodox divide.

In 706, after the Islamic conquest of the region, the church was partially destroyed and rebuilt as a mosque. Several elements survive, however, from the church, including the internal columns and three towers converted into minarets. One, the so-called “minaret of Jesus,” is, according to local Christian legend, the spot from which Jesus will announce the last judgment.

Inside the mosque is a chapel believed to hold the head of John the Baptist. (Recall that, according to the New Testament, Herod ordered John’s head severed from his body). The relic was lost during the Christian period, but rediscovered during the construction of the mosque.

Because Islam also recognizes John as a prophet -- he is known by the Arabic name Yahya -- Califf Al-Walid ordered the chapel built. The current chapel is made of marble, replacing the wooden original that burned in an 1893 fire.

The mosque is called “grand” because it is enormous. John Paul walked virtually the entire length of it during his visit. Because the floor is covered with carpets of different sizes and thicknesses, the ailing pontiff stumbled several times as he made his way toward the John the Baptist chapel for a moment of prayer.

The pope, like all visitors to a mosque, took off his shoes before entering. Personal secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz removed the reddish-tan papal loafers and placed slippers on the pope’s feet.

Because of the Islamic ban on images, a mosque, unlike the great churches of the Christian world, is not a showroom for artistic masterpieces. It is more like a community center, with people stretched out on the floor and kids playing. When NCR visited, one young Syrian was doing his algebra homework and a group of men were playing cards.

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001