By Shelina Janmohamed
With the 11th anniversary of 9/11, questions, conflicts and misunderstandings between faith groups persist. But something interesting is happening. Recently in Jerusalem, a group of serious-looking, exclusively male clergy from Islam, Christianity and Judaism came together to praise a woman – Mary, the mother of Jesus – and find shared meaning through her.
In a world of peacemaking initiatives and efforts dominated by men, this is a rare and exciting instance of a female role model being used as a bridge.
Mary, who was a Jew and the mother of the Christian Son of God, is also one of the most revered women in the Muslim tradition. Known in Arabic as Maryam, a chapter of the Qur’an is named after her. But alongside this status, she is deeply human.
What better way to connect than through one of the most famous mothers in history?
The founder of the initiative is former journalist Ingrid Stellmacher, who after 25 years of producing TV and film wanted to “stop commenting on conflict and start doing something to resolve it.” She created the UK-based organisation, The Mary Initiative, which aims to bring people together through their shared understanding and experience of Mary.
Stellmacher says focusing the conversation on the common significance Mary plays gets over the barrier of “just talking” about interfaith dialogue and peace. Mary brings people to the table for dialogue because of the passion and respect she evokes, and thus connects interlocutors, both men and women, even before they begin to speak.
For example, a group of Somali women were astonished to learn that Mary was a Jew, something Stellmacher says happens with different groups around the world. In this case, this realisation led to a tentative engagement with Jewish women on gender issues that affect both groups.
The global draw of Mary means that she is accessible across cultures and territories: from the United Kingdom to the United States, Tanzania, Kenya and Yemen. The concept is startlingly simple. Groups of mixed faiths, sometimes along with non-religious peers, are asked to discuss the question, “What does Mary mean to you?”
The responses are filmed, and interviews of one group are presented for discussion to different groups. For example, Palestinian Ambassador to the UK in London, Professor Manuel Hassassian, expressed how for him, “Mary symbolises hope, spirituality and love”. Hope, spirituality and love are some of the essential ingredients often missing when we approach the desperate issues we face in the world.
Jewish professor Miri Rubin, eloquently describes how impossible it is to be a European and not be touched by Mary’s reach in art, architecture and poetry, “everything we consider beautiful basically”.
A group of Pakistani Muslims expressed the wish to have a Mary Initiative between India and Pakistan because partition was their 9/ll. At that point they hadn’t seen a film clip of Dr Mohini Giri, the daughter-in-law of India’s fourth President, V.V. Giri, a Hindu, explaining that to her Mary means mother, and if through Mary we could have peace then why not?
Bringing forward-looking and positive discussions of Mary to groups of people still looking back to the 11th September attacks poses important conceptual questions for peacemaking. For example, how hard power should be balanced with soft power and notions of reconciliation.
At a Mary Initiative session at Fairfield University in the United States earlier this year, Fairfield’s director for the Center for Faith and Public Life, Rev Richard Ryscavage, said the “Mary Initiative should be taught in diplomatic school here in the United States, because this approach around Mary, which provides a less confrontational space and already exists due to the shared narrative between Christians and Muslims is a new, powerful conversation with legs that can arm diplomats with an outstretched hand that contains something genuine rather than manufactured.”
At the end of a 3-hour session in a US prison, two chaplains approached Stellmacher to explain how they were supposed to be giving joint presentations with their Muslim counterparts, but that tensions between Christians and Muslim chaplains where so high they hadn’t even spoken. But now, they would suggest they do a joint-presentation on Mary. Stellmacher knew these two men would go back and have a completely different type of conversation than they had ever had before, a softer conversation.
Stellmacher recounts: “There is a Buddhist saying – the heart has a secret silent language. Introducing Mary just gives permission to use it.”
Shelina Janmohamed is a London-based author.