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One afternoon I climb to Our Lady of Saydnaya, a cliff-top Greek Orthodox convent in Syria that has weathered the storms of empire since 547. Once inside I find myself not among Christians but in a crowd of Muslim families who've come seeking the blessings of the Virgin Mary, whose powers of healing and fertility have drawn people in need for nearly 1,500 years.

As my eyes adjust to the gloom of the candlelit inner sanctum, I watch as a woman in a head scarf offers her baby, wrapped in a blanket, to the centerpiece of the shrine. There, surrounded by soot-blackened icons, a brass template covers the image of Mary, said to be painted by St. Luke, which inspires even though hidden from view. With her eyes closed and lips moving in silent prayer, the baby's mother presses his face gently against the metal plate for a long moment. Later, outside, I meet the woman and her family, who'd driven up from Damascus after Friday prayers at their mosque.

Wary of strangers, they would offer only the name of their sick child, Mahmoud. Just seven months old, swaddled in a green blanket, he lay still as death with his eyes closed, barely breathing. His face was a dark grayish brown. "The doctor said he can't do anything for Mahmoud and that we should send him to America for an operation," his mother says. "That's impossible, so we need a miracle instead. I'm a Muslim, but a long time ago my family used to be Christian. I believe in the prophets—Muslim, Jewish, and Christian—and I believe in Mary. I've come here so that my boy will be healed."

Such scenes reflect the Levant's history of coexistence between Muslims and people of other faiths, which dates from the earliest days of Islam. When the Muslim Caliph Omar conquered Syria from the Byzantine Empire around 636, he protected the Christians under his rule, allowing them to keep their churches and worship as they pleased. But many Christians converted to Islam anyway, preferring its emphasis on a personal connection with God to the oppressive hierarchies of the Byzantine Church. The grandson of the last Christian governor of Damascus, who grew up to be the theologian St. John Damascene, listened to the newcomers talk about Islam—its acceptance of the Old and New Testaments, its esteem for Jewish prophets, its veneration of Jesus and Mary—and concluded that it was another of the many Christian heresies making the rounds of the Byzantine Empire, beyond the reach of church authorities in Constantinople. It never occurred to him, even writing many years later, that Islam might be a separate religion. When later caliphs imposed heavy taxes on Christians, conversions soared among poor villagers. For those early Arab Christians, whose word for God was (as it still is today) Allah, accepting the tenets of Islam was more like stepping over a stream than vaulting a chasm.

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