A Muslim’s Memorable Visit to Rome, the Vatican and Jerusalem
By Dr. Nur Amersi
Los Angeles, CA
The weight of the Muslim Ummah rested on my shoulders as I warmly greeted Rabbi Mark Diamond, the Executive Vice President of Southern California, who had organized our religious and interfaith mission to Rome, the Vatican and Jerusalem.
Tall and formidable, Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s Bishop Edward Clark, who was the co-leader of our mission, smiled at me reassuringly as if he understood my predicament as I glanced around at the 27 faces in our group.
I am not a religious cleric but did have 12 years of Religious Institutional and Foundational experience to draw upon. Religion had always been simple to understand, theological conflicts within and between faiths always perplexed me. It is our collective “human condition” that has always interested me. It is us, we the people, with all our imperfections who have done the greatest damage to the integrity of the Divine Revelations to mankind.
Arriving in Rome, our family bonding within the group began. Reciting Muslim prayer before every meal was my singular duty, followed by Christian and Jewish Blessings. Rabbi Stewart Vogel, Rabbi Ronald Stern and Stephen Salzman and I shared copies of the International Herald Tribune. Dr. Jerry Campbell, President of Claremont School of Theology, constantly engaged me on intellectual subjects while Bishop Mary Ann Swenson and Fr. Alexei Smith kept me smiling. Jonathan Freund’s solemn duty was to round me up as I was always lagging behind and Jo Zito had to deal with my early morning namaz rituals.
The eminent Monsignor Laurence Spiteri, legal counsel to the Vatican, accompanied us throughout our visit to the Vatican. The Vatican Museums founded by Pope Julius II in the 16th Century have the most exquisite Christian Art history and sculptures, the Sistine Chapel frescoes depict the strong relationship between the Judeo-Christian world and I soon realized how crucial this visit was to have a comprehensive understanding of Christianity. Walking around the restrictive space of the Vatican and touring the breathless paintings in St. Peter’s Basilica whilst listening to the historical intriguing plots about Rome, the Vatican and the Church made our Shia-Sunni Civilization conflict appear quite pale in comparison!
Meeting Pope Benedict was an unforgettable experience, especially as Patrick Powers and Wanda Rizzo intimately shared with me their Roman Catholic beliefs and the spiritual significance of the Papacy. The Blessings of the Spiritual leader should be held in the highest reverence, and the sanctity of the audience will always reverberate with me. Among the Vatican officials we met was Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue specifically with Muslims. His brilliant personality and compassionate humility won my admiration and thus began a lifelong friendship. We had a formal meeting with Cardinal Turan in the Vatican Offices and then dinner later that night where to my delight I found myself seated next to him.
I took him on a whirlwind tour of all my observations of my Muslim world and like biblical Joseph, he interpreted all I saw with accuracy, profundity and visionary insight. I wish I had a kingdom to gift him, but I think he already has one! The Head of Christian Unity and Catholic-Jewish Relations, Cardinal Walter Kasper, has an ever-smiling cherubic expression and I was glad I would never have to confront him on contentious issues. Undersecretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Fr. J. Augustine DiNoia is a serious man with a complicated philosophical project. The technical discussion of Christian doctrinal issues passed over my head but his philosophy had universal applications.
Every building in the Vatican City outshines the one previously visited, but my favorite office was the Vatican Secretariat of State where our respected King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, custodian of our Muslim Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, was received. It was thrilling to get the Swiss guards salute like our King, use the same elevator, and walk down the same tapestry gilded halls. We met with Monsignors Franco Coppola and Alberto Ortega and discussed Middle East Affairs. Our group enjoyed the view from the Secretariat balcony, right next to Pope Benedict’s apartment overlooking St. Peter’s Square.
Rabbi Mark Diamond arranged for us to visit The Great Synagogue of Rome (Tempio Maggiore di Roma) where Rabbi Michael Ascoli explained to us the history of the Roman Jewish Community and the historic visit of Pope John Paul II in 1986 to the synagogue. At our tearful farewell dinner with Vatican Officials and especially Monsignor Spiteri, I promised to return to Rome and continue our discussions with our Vatican friends, but not without my representative Muslim clans in tow.
The El-Al flight, I was warned, would ask me additional questions due to my cultural identity but the charming security screener who was neatly going through my luggage and giving me tourist tips in his husky Middle Eastern accent made it a pleasant interruption. One tip when flying El-Al: it’s helpful to know the weekly Torah Portion! On the flight I sat next to Glen Kantor who was the eternal skeptic on doctrinal issues and was reading “Blasphemy.” Glen took one look at my determined face planning to test him on his Jewish history and declared he wanted to take a nap. So Steve Saltzman and I read passages from Reza Aslan’s “No God but God” and had a mini-herzliya conference all the way to Tel-Aviv.
There is nothing sinister about discussing foreign policy between countries and debating the aspirations of their citizens. If we learn the history of our civilizations, respect each other’s cultural identity and recognize that equitable global positioning in decision-making is the right of every nation, then all our difficulties will be resolved.
Landing at the David Ben-Gurion Airport, I came to the stark realization of its proximity to the west bank. The drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is quixotic as the 21st century modern designs transform into the historic quaint Jerusalem stone architectural buildings. The road is littered with vehicular memorabilia from the War of Independence and the residential buildings have solar panel rooftops facilitating fossil fuel conservation.
It was 5pm and Shabbath services were going to start soon at the Hebrew Union College. My soul was uneasy as my gaze turned to the distant skyline of Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock beckoning me. Rabbi Diamond got an instant ulcer when I told him that I was determined to go through the Arab Quarter via the Damascus Gate. I slipped my prayer beads in my coat pocket and realized how privileged I was to be a Muslim as that was my passport to enter Temple Mount. The Israeli guards at the barrier were not to take the responsibility for ascertaining my religious identity. Two Muslim guards were summoned and after checking my California driver license asked me to recite Sura-al Fatiha. With my eyes shut and prayer beads in the palms of my hands, the beautiful words of the Holy Qur’an gushed out from the depth of my soul. They nodded, I followed, and we entered a small door and I could see Temple Mount. But it was not yet over!
Two austere looking men approached me and recited few words of three different Qur’anic Suras and I was asked to complete the verse. I passed the test and they profusely apologized stating that there were reports of foreigners plotting to blow up the mosque. I was not paying attention. I headed to the Dome of the Rock and took off my shoes. I could not stop crying. This is where it all began - God’s Covenant with humanity through Abraham who was neither a Jew, nor Christian nor Muslim and yet he was closest to God. This was also where Biblical scholars have outlined to be the site of the Holy of the Holies where King Solomon placed the Ark of the Covenant in the First Temple dedicated to our common Abrahamic belief in our One God. And this is where my beloved Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) on his divine visionary night journey, the Isra, ascended to the highest plane of Divine seat in the Meraj.
I thought of all my friends in my group who were more deserving than me and could not physically be here because they were not the “right religion” by political considerations. When I returned for Shabbath Dinner, I gave Rabbi Diamond a big hug and showed him my photographs at Temple Mount - photographs taken by the same rifle laden guards who had interrogated me!
And so that is now my eternal bond to Jerusalem - Nur’s Temple Mount. Every morning I rushed out at 6:30 am and walked to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque and then prostrate at Dome of the Rock where the doors opened at 7:30am.
Now about the Al-Aqsa mosque. Let’s just say the women were not impressed by my Iranian style chic hijab. This was politely pointed out. The women were delighted when I asked them to “fix it.” A tight pin under my chin, and folds over my forehead - it was a job well done. They remarked that my namaz style was different and when I revealed I was a Shia Muslim, they were thrilled that I was praying in a Sunni mosque. Of course, all sorts of questions were asked - where I was from, whom I was meeting. When I told them we were planning to meet PA authority Salaam Fayad they voiced disapproval. That was a remarkably consistent opinion among the shopkeepers in the Arab Shouk and students whom I met in the mosque.
The two full days we spent in Jerusalem were filled with visits to Holy Sites. Visit to the Old City and Shouks (I strategically memorized the market lanes so I could return to shop), the Christian Quarter along the via Dolorosa and Church of the Holy Sepluchre and meeting with Latin Patriarchate Michel Sabah. The Holy Sites were emotional moments and the conversation with the Latin Patriarch proved to me how religion can be held hostage by politics - this is the sad state of humanity today.
Later, in pouring rain we visited the Jewish Quarter where at the Western Wall I slipped a blank note to God. In Islam, we submit to God’s will so I cannot give Him instructions. The blank note in the western wall that Nur left, is for God to write His wish for all of us.
Then another ulcer moment for Rabbi Mark Diamond. I wanted to spend time with the Arab brethren in the Shouk. Reluctantly and with promises to stay within safety guidelines, I took off and was Queen of the Shouk. Everywhere I shopped, I first announced I was their Muslim sister and the treatment was five star. Preferable rates for my US dollar, family priced merchandise, small talk about family, and mint tea ordered specially for me in the stores. This is my Muslim culture and tradition and I was nostalgic to be amongst the Israeli Arabs and their scampering children who spoke great English and freely expressed political views and social concerns in their country. These Arab citizens are a fine people, loyal to Israel, and I hope that the Government of Israel treats them equitably as there is the potential for a model democratic and pluralistic state to be a “light unto all nations.”
Our visit to Yad Vashem left me numb for words. It is a scholarly institution which shows how an educated human mind can degenerate into a vicious cycle of unspeakable evil and manipulation. Later at the Valley of the Communities, Bishop Carranza-Gomez led a prayer ceremony for the six million beautiful innocent lives whose only sin was that they were Jewish and whose collective potential contribution to all our lives will be lost forever. Further meetings with Members of the Knesset, Editor-in Chief of Jerusalem Post David Horovitz and my personal favorite journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, completed our understanding of the fragile political situation in the region.
The last day was spent in Tel Aviv where we paid tribute at the Yitzak Rabin Memorial. In Jaffa, we visited Rogozin/Reshet School for underprivileged youth and also children of foreign workers. Then onto Mishkenot Ruth, a bi-cultural center for Arabs and Jews and finally shopping at the Old City of Jaffa where I filled my remaining suitcase space with exquisite work of Yeminite artists. Fortuitously, we met world-renowned sculptor Frank Meisler in his gallery. His humility and exceptional talent will always linger in my mind.
Finally a well deserved dinner and entertainment for all of us and especially Rabbi Steven Carr-Reuben who had pain in his shoulder as he had been carrying my shopping bags around. I confessed to Father Alexei Smith that I had excess baggage and he graciously helped me out with my four suitcases.
Another El- Al security sweep for me and we were on our way back home to Los Angeles.
How can I sum up my transformation in this religious- interfaith mission where our common humanity glued us together like a family? There is a beautiful Sura in the Qur’an which I have now come to understand:
Be careful of your duty to your Lord
Who created you from a single soul
and from it created its mate
and from them twain hath spread abroad
a multitude of men and women
(Surah 4 Ayat 1)
(Dr. Nur Amersi is the Executive Director of the Afghanistan World Foundation)