Interfaith tourism in Syria

Who says the Middle East has to be a place of religious tension?

Not the worshipers at Deir Mar Mousa monastery. This medieval Christian monastery is a pilgrimage center for Christians and Muslims alike thanks to an open policy of worship and tolerant religious discussion.

Christians make up about ten percent of Syria’s population and there are churches in many cities, like the one in Hama pictured here. Byzantine monasteries dot the countryside, although most have been empty for centuries.

Deir Mar Mousa is located atop a rugged hill in the desert fifty miles north of Damascus. Long abandoned, its buildings and historic frescoes were restored over the past two decades and it’s now open to all. Pilgrims are welcome to stay the night for free in a stone hut in exchange for light work such as cleaning the dishes. Much of the pilgrims’ time is spent participating in long, patient discussions with people who believe differently than they do. Sounds a bit like the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

You don’t have to be of a particular religion or indeed any religion to stay, but getting there is a bit complicated and you’ll need some basic equipment. Instructions are on the monastery’s website.

The monastery is run by the Jesuit priest Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio and a group of monks, nuns, and lay volunteers. This group has taken a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience like in most monastic communities, but unusually they have also dedicated themselves to “being in service and love for the Muslim world.” People gather regularly for prayer meetings that involve silent meditation, multilingual services, and interfaith discussion.

Father Dall’Oglio explains his life’s work by saying, “Jesus loves Muslims, the same Jesus who is alive in me.”

When speaking with the New York Times for a recent article, he put it more simply.

“We’re all in this together.”

Creation Museum: Where People and Dinosaurs Meet

First of all, I love Kentucky. I really do. I was born there. I have family still there, but here’s a museum that I’m just not too sure about and it happens to be near where my relatives live. Already there’s controversy and I almost hesitate to bring it up, but here it goes, The Creation Museum opens tomorrow just south of Cincinnati. The Web site’s heading says, “Prepare to Believe.” This is an opposite look at natural history than the one depicted in my La Brea Tar Pits post.

The museum is not just a rinky-dink operation either. This is a mega-bucks attraction, as in $27 million, to highlight how the Bible is word for word true. For example, according to the word for word translation of the Bible all animals were created on the 5th and 6th day, dinosaurs included. That means that humans and dinosaurs really did live at the same time. The Creation Museum shows just what that looked like. Just think what this means for Walt Disney Productions.

To help visitors prepare to believe and connect dots between then and now, Old Testament favorites like Noah’s Ark are depicted in life-like form. If you ever wondered how the animals got off the ark this might help you out. The museum also has all the bells and whistles of visitor interaction as part of the walk-through displays. The photo is of the main exhibit hall where a 40-foot tall aninimatronic sauropod dinosaur is grouped with several others.

In Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky scientists are busy with protests since the fear is that kids, like my 5-year old son who would be enamored with this place, might have their scientific lens destroyed. For the creators of the museum, one of them a former Universal Studios director, it seems to me, that is part of the point. One of the things I appreciate about this place is that the museum says upfront what it is. The main theme is “The Bible is True from Genesis to Revelation.” This isn’t a bait and switch operation. You may not believe what you see, but you won’t be surprised by it either.