Fire and spirituality at Notre Dame Cathedral and Al Aqsa Mosque

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The cross that survived the collapse of Notre Dame’s roof. (photo: CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON POOL)

IO – On April 16th 2019 the world awoke to the shocking news that fires had broken out at Notre Dame Ca­thedral in Paris and Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem at nearly the same time during the night. The damage to the cathedral was much larger than that suffered by the mosque. Both fires were extinguished by Tuesday morning.

Notre Dame Cathedral:
Hamid Karzai, the former Presi­dent of Afghanistan stated that when he heard about the cathedral, he felt the same sadness as when he heard that the Buddhas of Bamyan were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. The Cathedral is considered to be the fin­est example of French Gothic archi­tecture. Construction of the church began in around 1160 and continued for nearly two hundred years. It is both a national as well as a cultural symbol for France. Amongst many events through the centuries Napo­leon Bonaparte was crowned there, the funerals of several presidents of the Third French Republic were held here and it was the setting for Victor Hugo’s famous Hunchback of Notre Dame. Florence de Langlais of Tresors de Paris an organization un­der the Bishopric of Paris says, “No­tre Dame reflected a thousand years of French history and all the men and women who with their faith and knowledge created it. It took a thou­sand years to build that history and just a few hours to destroy it.”

Angela Merkel referred to the ca­thedral as a symbol of French and European culture. “However, No­tre Dame was also the heart of the French church where more than two thousand masses per year are per­formed,” added De Langlais. “It is where all the priests and bishops of Paris are ordained and there are more priests in Paris than anywhere else in France. So, it is the heart of French Catholicism but it is not only Cath­olics who cried as it burnt. It is the most visited monument in France.”

The evening mass was being per­formed in Notre Dame cathedral at 6.20 pm on the 15th of April when a fire alarm sounded but no fire was found. Twenty-three minutes later the alarm went off again and this time a fire was found to have bro­ken out in a space in the roof. By 7 pm the fire reached the cathedral’s ninety-three meters high spire which then collapsed, falling through the roof. The cathedral has a ribbed roof made of hundreds of oak beams dat­ing back to the Middle Ages. It took four hours for the fire to burn the en­tire 110 meter- long roof and it took four hundred firemen more than 12 hours to completely put out the fire.

Flames razing the roof of Notre Dame. (photo: FEU DANS LA CHARPENTE DE NOTRE DAME-LELAISSERPASSERA38)

Paris public prosecutor, Rémy Heitz says that there is nothing to suggest that the fire was anything other than an accident although the police is still questioning workers in­volved in the restoration of the Ca­thedral.

“For Catholics the most consoling sight was perhaps the picture of the cross on the altar that survived the destruction of the falling roof as a symbol of hope and faith,” disclosed De Langlais. “The cathedral is ded­icated to Our Lady, the Virgin Mary and both the pieta behind the cross and the statue of the Virgin of the Pil­lar remain intact. Perhaps the most miraculous was that on the cathe­dral’s main spire which burnt and fell was the figure of a rooster within which were preserved relics of the two patron saints of Paris, St Denis and St Genevieve. Everyone thought that the rooster would have melted with the heat but it was found with all the relics intact.”

The cathedral’s two 69-metre Gothic bell towers remain standing as does its main structure and all three famous rosette windows with their priceless stained glass. Notre Dame’s organ which with 8000 pipes is amongst the largest and most magnificent in the world was saved as well as some smaller works of art. Fortunately copper statues of the twelve apostles were saved because they had just the week before been removed from the cathedral with cranes for restoration work. Also, in the treasure room the crown of thorns made of reeds and gold as well as the 13th century tunic of Saint Louis of France were rescued.

One of the beautiful rosette stained glass windows of Notre Dame. (photo: PIXABAY)

Within hours of the fire French Prime Minister Emannuel Macron had confirmed that the Foundation for French Heritage was starting fund raising immediately to collect funds for the restoration of the cathedral and the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, promised to hold a “donors’ confer­ence” to raise money and internation­al expertise from around the world.

Meanwhile, UNESCO Direc­tor-General Audrey Azoulay in front of the devastating fire that ravaged the historic Cathedral of Notre-Dame declared that we are all heartbroken.” The cathedral was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1991. She add­ed that “UNESCO stands by France in safeguarding and rehabilitating this invaluable heritage… We are already in contact with experts and ready to send an emergency mission to assess the damage, preserve what can be preserved and plan short and medium-term measures…”

“As of today, Euro 1 billion have already been promised by donners. President Macron said that the cathe­dral would be rebuilt within 5 years but the experts have not studied the building yet and so we cannot know that for sure,” explained De Langlais. And has the disaster helped to unite a nation that in recent months has been torn asunder by political strife and demonstrations that have at times turned violent?

“I hope so but French people can be a bit complicated,” remarked De Langlais. “After all the strife in recent months the government had held a grand debate for three months to lis­ten to what the people wanted with regard to taxes, social issues and many other issues. Our President was to have made a big announce­ment about this on the night of the fire but he postponed it because at the time people were too preoccupied with the fire at Notre Dame. It will be announced at a later time and I tru­ly hope that it will help unite people again.”

Veronique D’Estaintot a psycholo­gist working in Paris raises a different issue. “As a Catholic I am happy to see that so many people are touched by what happened to Notre Dame. It is an opportunity to talk about the faith of Catholics from a different perspective and it illustrates the fact that objectively Christianity is part of French history and culture.

A great number of French intellec­tuals and then politicians and then little by little society as a whole have come to consider that French history starts with the French Revolution and the Lumieres and that before that the system and the people were ignorant believers in a God who probably does not exist. So, Tuesday’s reactions to Notre Dame in flames has been very paradoxical: this strong desire to erase the Christian roots of France and Europe on the one hand but on the other a strong general shared emotion and acknowledgement of Notre Dame as a sacred building in which they experience the essence of spirituality in its beauty and their com­mon history. People refuse these roots but cannot help feeling connected.”

The Al Aqsa Mosque fire
Meanwhile, at nearly the same time that Notre Dame was burning fire broke out at the Al Aqsa Mosque complex which is the third holiest site in Islam. It was finished in 705 CE and David and Solomon are said to have prayed at its site. Muhamad is believed to have travelled on Buraq from Mecca to Al Aqsa from where he flew to heaven with the angel Ga­briel and prayed with several of the prophets.

The fire at Al Aqsa. (photo: Social Media)

On Tuesday night smoke and fire began to emerge from the roof of the Marwani Prayer Room also known as Solomon’s Stables at the mosque. A fire had broken out in the guards’ room outside the roof of the prayer room. The mosque is located on top of the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem which came under Israeli authority after the Six Day War in 1967.

Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, director general of the Jerusalem Waqf and Al-Aqsa Mosque Affairs Department thought that the fire may have been started by children playing there. The Palestinian Embassy in Jakarta confirmed that there are currently no suspicions of the fire having been started due to criminal intent. Mr Taher Ibrahim Hamad, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Palestinian Em­bassy in Jakarta also said that Al Aqsa Mosque would have no trouble raising funds to repair the damage caused by the fire as this would be the responsi­bility of the King of Jordan.

The Hashemites who are descen­dants of the Prophet Muhamad ruled Mecca for 700 years until they were ousted by the House of Saud in 1924. That same year the Supreme Muslim Council in Palestine agreed to allow the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca, Hus­sein bin Ali to become the custodian of the Al Aqsa Mosque. The Hashimite legacy has since then been adminis­tered by Jordanian kings. Jordan controlled East Jerusalem until the Six Day War when it was annexed by Israel. Under the 1998 peace treaty Israel agreed to continue to respect the special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Palestine. Jor­dan’s custodianship entails taking care of both Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem. In 2016 for exam­ple King Abdullah II participated in funding renovation of Christ’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “In 1992 the Al Aqsa Mosque required renovations in the amount of US $ 6 million and King Hussein of Jordan sold one of his UK properties to pay for the renovations,” explained Mr Hamad.

The Mosque is temporarily closed and the Jordanian government will now be responsible for taking care of the damage caused by the fire at Al Aqsa Mosque. Commenting on the coincidence of the cathedral and the mosque catching fire at nearly the same time, Mr Hamad said, “It is such a coincidence that the two places of worship burnt at nearly the same time. We all believe in God and all of us are not just Muslims and Christians but human beings and we should believe in peace and good will. We send our sympathy to the people of France and their sad loss.”

In this he was echoing the senti­ments of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Sun­ni Islam’s highest authority, who tweet­ed in Arabic and French, “Our hearts go out to our brothers in France, they deserve our full support.”

So, is there any significance in both places of worship burning at nearly the same time? For some it has no significance at all: it was merely a coincidence of time and place and the lesson to be derived from it all is that we need to be more careful and have better fire prevention programs in place for heritage buildings.

Al Aqsa Mosque. (photo: YAZAN JWAILES)

For others it has a deeper signif­icance and perhaps this is best ex­pressed by an Indonesian for Indonesia with it position on the trade routes is a country that has for centuries embraced a culture of inclusiveness. Haidar Bagir who heads the Indonesian branch of Compassionate Action International as well as the Indonesian Compas­sionate Islam Movement said that there is a belief that there exists a mutual sym­pathy between the different parts of the universe especially if they are of the same frequencies; if one suffers the other will suffer too and so all parts of the universe have a relationship of love to one another.  You can compare it to the chaos theory in physics where if a butterfly flaps its wings in Indonesia it can affect climate change in America through a chain of changes. Who knows but the two places of worship burning at nearly the same time indicates such a relationship of love. The real lesson to mankind however, is about recovering our spirituality of which the two places burning are its symbols.It may be an indication that our concern and attention has diminished.”

If we look at the objects not de­stroyed by the fire at Notre Dame they are most often the most spiritual ones from the cross on the altar, the Pieta, the statue of Our Lady at the Pillar to the crown of thorns and St Louis’ tunic which on some level devout Catholics perhaps recognize and which brings comfort to them in their belief. Haidar says, “The fires at these two plac­es that are such important legacies of human civilization and spirituali­ty are a wake-up call to humanity to recover its spirituality.”

A spirituality which all too often has not kept up with all the progress of science and technology­ and which has all too often been lost in re­ligious conflicts. Now in this Christian advent to Easter and as the advent season to Ramadhan also approaches for Mus­lims these are surely thoughts worth pon­dering… (Tamalia Alisjahbana)