Notre Dame and Al-Aqsa Fires Give Christians and Muslims a Chance to Work Together to Repair Their Sacred Spaces | Opinion

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Al-Aqsa Mosque, in the Old City of Jerusalem, on June 15, 2018. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

The world watched as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned, due to a disastrous inferno that nearly crippled the 850-year-old church. Nearly 3,000 miles away, the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem also dealt with an apparently accidental fire of its own.

The al-Aqsa fire received much less attention in the news, but the burning of this 984-year-old mosque draws our attention to two of the important sites in Christendom and the Islamic world. While the fires are indeed unfortunate, they provide an opportunity for Christians and Muslims to reflect upon their common humanity and assist each other in the repairing of sacred spaces.

Outside of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, Notre Dame Cathedral is considered one of the holiest places in Christendom. For Muslims, al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam behind al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina.

Thankfully, two of the Catholic holy relics in Notre Dame—the Crown of Thorns and the Fragment of the Cross—survived the devastating blaze. No news outlets have reported any damage to al-Aqsa, which was built on the Temple Mount, known as Haram esh-Sharif to Muslims.

The significance of the two fires pushes us beyond the mere structure of the buildings. Notre Dame and al-Aqsa symbolize the challenges and hopes for Christians and Muslims in their respective histories. For centuries, Notre Dame was the epicenter of Christianity on the European continent. Al-Aqsa is the place where Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad was transported during his Night Journey. For Muslims, al-Aqsa is not the most impressive mosque in the world, but it represents the permanent symbol of the Islamic faith in the holy land.

GettyImages-975008304 Al-Aqsa Mosque, in the Old City of Jerusalem, on June 15, 2018. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

For centuries, Notre Dame was the prize of foreign, revolutionary, and secular forces that pressured the church to bend to its will. After the first stone was laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163, the church witnessed the crowning of Henry XI, the English King, in 1431, an infiltration by the Huguenots in the 1540s, an assault in the 1790s by French revolutionaries, who rededicated Notre Dame to the “Cult of Reason,” and of course the rise of Nazism during World War II. Notre Dame was also the spot where Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor and where the French hero, Joan of Arc, was beatified by the Vatican in 1909.

Notre Dame managed to stand tall during the trying and hopeful times. The building represents much more than Christian identity—it serves as a reminder of the French peoples’ will to persevere and their aspirations for France as well as humanity and Christendom.

A similar kind of symbolism holds true for Muslims and their connection to al-Aqsa. The mosque is much more than a place that holds the five daily prayers. Like Notre Dame, al-Aqsa has a complex history of religious tension, warfare and occupation. Originally built by Caliph Umar on the grounds of a former Byzantine building, al-Aqsa was imagined as a continuation and perfection of Judaism and Christianity. Several Muslim dynasties, from the Umayyads to the Abbasids to the Shi’a Fatimids, had control over al-Asqa in the early centuries of the Islamic empire.

In the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks, a Sunni group from Central Asia, seized control of the mosque, only then to be lost to the Crusaders that invaded from Western Europe. In the early 16th century, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I invaded Jerusalem and conquered the Mamluks, and the Ottoman Turks maintained control until World War I, when Jerusalem was then handed over to the British Empire. Today, al-Aqsa rests on Israeli-occupied territory, a cause of much tension for Palestinian Muslims as well as the wider ummah, or “Muslim world.”

GettyImages-1133102572 A picture taken on March 27, 2019 shows a scaffold during the restauration of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, in Paris. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images

The fire at al-Aqsa ignites feelings among Muslims that are similar to the feelings of Christians who watched the inferno at Notre Dame Cathedral. Both of these holy sites capture the diversity of both Christianity and Islam as well as the good and the bad of our common humanity. These places of worship symbolize the battleground of civilizations, the glories of revolutions, the emergence of nation-states and empires, as well as the struggle for liberty and independence among oppressed peoples.

The Holy Week of the Catholic tradition is already under way. Catholics and Protestants in France and around the world are gearing up for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In a few weeks, Muslims will celebrate Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. The fires at Notre Dame and al-Aqsa provide an opportunity for Christians and Muslims to reflect upon the importance of worship as well as the achievements of those who came before them. Perhaps more importantly, Christians and Muslims have a chance to support each other as they work to repair their sacred spaces.

As Notre Dame and al-Aqsa remind us, Christians and Muslims have a lot more in common than belief in the monotheistic tradition or the ability to pray in some of the world’s most glorious places of worship. Christians and Muslims struggle, grieve, hope and pray as so many humans do during times of strife.

Dr. Craig Considine is a U.S. Catholic of Irish and Italian descent. He is based at the Department of Sociology at Rice University. Considine is the author of Islam in America: Exploring the Issues (ABC-CLIO Summer 2019), Muslims in America: Examining the Facts (ABC-CLIO 2018), Muhammad the Prophet of Love(Noura 2018), and Islam, Race, and Pluralism in the Pakistani Diaspora (Routledge, 2017).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​​

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