Standing in the middle of a long queue at Jeddah airport, Mahdi Sharif is one of millions of Muslims waiting to enter Saudi Arabia to start the annual haj pilgrimage despite a global outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus.
Waves of H1N1 swine flu spread by some three million pilgrims travelling to and from Mecca for next month’s haj threaten to pile pressure on healthcare systems around the world, disease experts said on Thursday.
Has the Virgin Mary been appearing daily for many years in the once obscure Bosnian village of Medjugorje to share religious messages with a few local believers? Is the site visited by over 30 million pilgrims a hoax? The question has long divided Catholics who have debated whether the visions are a modern-day miracle, wishful thinking or the result of an elaborate fraud.
Standing behind a wall of pearls and prayer beads in a shop in Mecca, souvenir dealer Mohammad Hamdi says business has never been so bad. Shops, hotels and tour operators in Islam’s holiest city in western Saudi Arabia are counting the losses as many pilgrims, worried about swine flu, stay at home.
Pope Benedict’s long-awaited address to Muslims at the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque topped the day’s list of speeches. It dominated our news coverage today. He also spoke at Mount Nebo, where the Bible says Moses glimpsed the Promised Land before dying, and at a ceremony to bless the cornerstone of a Catholic university being built in Madaba. The mosque and Madaba speeches were classic Ratzinger, with some of his trademark theological and philosophical arguments. If he had delivered the mosque speech at Regensburg, there might never have been a “Regensburg.” Benedict ended the day with a short sermon at vespers in the Greek-Melkite Cathedral of Saint George.
Pope Benedict plans to speak publicly at least 29 times during his May 8-15 trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Apart from covering the main points in our news reports, we also plan to post excerpts from his speeches in a FathWorld series called “Papa dixit” (“the pope said”).
Sitting through a media briefing in Amman on Pope Benedict’s visit to Jordan starting on Friday, I whiled away the news-free parts trying to decipher the Arabic writing on the official logo (photo at right). I never fully mastered the Arabic alphabet or the Urdu language (which uses it) during my time in Pakistan over 20 years ago. But some hard-won bits of linguistic trivia remain stuck in the brain and come in handy at the most unexpected moments.
(Photo: Bethany baptismal pool with ruins of ancient basilicas in rear, a staircase to the water and, at right, two of the four massive pillars that used to hold a church above the baptism site, 6 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)
In John’s Gospel, verse 1:28, it says that John the Baptist used to baptise people in “Bethany beyond the Jordan” and Jesus went there for his own baptism. Seen from the perspective of Jerusalem, “beyond the Jordan” means on the river’s east bank, in present-day Jordan. Those words were added to distinguish that Bethany from the village near Jerusalem where Jesus was said to have raised Lazarus from the dead. Despite that, pilgrims have long visited a spot on the river’s west bank, now in an Israeli military zone in the Palestinian territories, and considered it the true site where Jesus was baptised.
Thousands of Shi’ite Muslims in southern Iraq are wrestling with a choice of religion or democracy before a pilgrimage which may prevent them from voting in elections to provincial councils on Saturday.
Muslims taking part in the annual haj pilgrimage often say they have no words to describe the spiritual experience they have. Their practical struggles with the logistics are another thing altogether.