In Lebanon, Muslims and Christians visit Marian shrine at Harissa

IMAGE: CNS/Dalia Khamissy

By Doreen Abi Raad

HARISSA, Lebanon (CNS) — High
on a summit overlooking the Mediterranean, Our Lady of Lebanon stands
majestically with her arms outstretched, welcoming her children.

Muslims and Christians alike
come to the shrine, 16 miles north of Beirut.

To Muslims, Mary is known in
Arabic as “Seidatna Maryam,” Our Lady Mary. Even though Muslims do
not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, in the Quran, a chapter is devoted to

In Lebanon, the feast of the
Annunciation, March 25, is celebrated by Christians and Muslims as a national

Some Muslims come to Harissa for
tourism to enjoy the spectacular views from the shrine’s 1,886-foot summit, and
some Muslims even visit its churches to pray, said Maronite Father Younen Obeid, rector of

“It depends on each person.
But for sure, all of them have a big respect for Mary,” he said of the
Muslim visitors.

At times, one can see as many
Muslim pilgrims in Harissa as Christian. Thousands of Muslim pilgrims come from
Iran each year, for example.

During the Marian month of May,
the shrine receives about 1 million visitors, Father Obeid said. For Lebanese,
particularly Maronite Catholics who have a deep devotion to Mary, this May
pilgrimage is an annual tradition.

Marie Rose Hajj Boutros, a
Maronite Catholic, has fond childhood memories of her parents taking her and
her four siblings to Harissa several times each month.

“You find peace here,” Hajj Boutros, 45, told Catholic News Service during a visit to the shrine with her Bible study
group. “It’s like you are under the Virgin’s mantle, under her protection.
When you come to Harissa, you feel like your problem will be solved.”

As part of the Bible study group’s
annual May pilgrimage, the eight ladies first prayed the rosary, offering
intentions for their families, Lebanon, the Middle East and the world. They
then climbed the 103 spiraling steps — with a guitar in tow — to sing Marian
hymns in English at the feet of the Blessed Mother.

“As soon as we started
singing, a bird flew over the Virgin’s crown and a cloud enveloped us,”
Hajj Boutros recounted. “It was beautiful. For us, it was a symbol of the
presence of God.”

Hajj Boutros relayed how a group
of Muslim teenagers, visiting the shrine as part of a school trip, “listened
intently to our hymns.”

“It’s nice to see how Our
Lady can unite us, Christian and Muslim. She’s the mother of us all,” Hajj
Boutros said.

The shrine’s origins trace to 1904,
when Maronite Catholic Patriarch Elias El-Hoyek and the Vatican nuncio to Lebanon decided to
commission a token of devotion to Mary on the 50th anniversary of the dogmatic
proclamation of the Immaculate Conception. The statue was consecrated in May

The statue, molten bronze
painted white, was crafted in Lyon, France. It is 27.8 feet high, 18 feet wide.
The stone base, or pedestal, is 65.6-feet high, with steps spiraling up to the
statue. Many Christian pilgrims leave their shoes at the foot of the pedestal
and make their way up barefoot, as a sacrifice.

One 21-year-old Sunni Muslim
university student from Beirut, who identified herself only as Zeina, visited
Harissa for the second time in May with her Maronite Catholic friend, Charbel
Eid, who introduced her to the shrine less than a month earlier.

“This time I suggested it,
but Charbel brought me here,” Zeina said, expressing their mutual desire
to be at Harissa. Zeina asked that CNS not publish her name because her family
is not aware that she is dating a Christian.

“My family is very
traditional,” she said.

Dressed in a hijab, color-coordinated
with her T-shirt, Zeina said that during this visit, she entered the Mother of
Light Chapel at the base of the statue’s pedestal.

“I felt a little awkward at
first, but the people there weren’t bothered at all by my presence, and that
made me feel comfortable,” she said.

“Honestly, I came here to
pray and to ask many things of Maryam al Aadra (the Virgin Mary). I asked her
to protect the people I love and to make clear for me the way I should go. I
prayed at her feet,” Zeina said.

“I lit a candle for the
first time,” she proudly added. “I hope what I came here for will
happen and that I can stay positive.”

Eid said he considers Mary “the
most important person in my life,” and he visits Harissa frequently. “When
I’m sad, I come here. When I’m happy also,” he said.

Most Christian pilgrims come to
Harissa “to pray about their troubles or problems, to ask the Virgin Mary
for something, to give thanks, to cry,” said Father Obeid.

Many go to Mass and to
Confession. Nine priests staff Harissa for the sacraments and for spiritual
direction, and the shrine offers an extensive Mass schedule, with ongoing confessions:
on weekdays, seven Masses and 18 hours of confession; on Sundays, 12 Masses and
20 hours of confession. Harissa is open 24 hours, every day.

During a special Mass June 12 in
Harissa’s basilica — which seats 3,000 people — Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite
patriarch, will reconsecrate Lebanon to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Cardinal
Rai has renewed the consecration there each year since the first time he
consecrated the country, June 13, 2013.

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