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It only happens every 33 years when calendars converge and the major Christian and Muslim holidays fall close together at the end of December. As Christians celebrate the Christmas season, Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. That centers on Abraham, a shared prophet from the Koran and the Old Testament. In the Middle East, these dual holiday times are reminders of the many shared traditions of Muslims and Christians.
NPR's Deborah Amos sent this story from Damascus.
DEBORAH AMOS: It's the jazzy version of Jingle Bells at the Damascus opera house. The choir is decked out in golden robes and the horn players wear angel's wings. Syria's Christian community celebrates the season with this traditional concert.
(Soundbite of choir singing)
AMOS: Also part of the tradition, Muslim families come here, too, to join in the holiday cheer. In this predominantly Muslim country, Christmas trees twinkle in shopping malls, Muslim neighborhoods are decorated with festive lights, a new custom here borrowed from Christians.
(Soundbite of applause)
AMOS: But across the Middle East, true understanding between Muslims and Christians, that's harder to find.
In a mountaintop monastery, about an hour's drive outside of the Syrian capital, a small Christian community is trying to lead the way. It is a long trip up to Dier Mar Musa, hundreds winding stone steps that finally lead to an arched doorway that opens on to a courtyard, a maze of stone rooms and a church. Built more than 1,500 years ago before the advent of Islam, when Christians were the majority in the region, but no longer.
Reverend PAOLO DALL'OGLIO (Jesuit Founder, Mar Musa Monastery): Christians in the Middle East - the numbers are going down quickly.
AMOS: That's Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, who leads this community dedicated to Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Rev. DALL'OGLIO: Some of us are willing to create hope together. We can work on our future world hand-by-hand as minorities that have something to offer to majorities.
AMOS: Father Paolo makes sure tea is served after the long hike and a sumptuous spread of cheese, jam, olives and bread, all produced here. He insists the guest eat first and then talk.
Rev. DALL'OGLIO: I don't like groups where the big dog is the only one having to work of the (unintelligible).
AMOS: No doubt, Father Paolo is the big dog here. Actually, more a bear of a man. He insists others speak also. There's Luay Jubail washing dishes in the kitchen, the veterinarian.
Mr. LUAY JUBAIL (Veterinarian): We have only goats because this mountain is so high. All the milk from the goats, only is special to produce cheese and everything is organic.
AMOS: And Sister Huda.
Ms. HUDA FADUIL (Mar Musa Monastery): Huda Faduil.
AMOS: Who conducts tours of the church, a restored 6th century altar with medieval frescos of Bible stories.
Ms. FADUIL: It has attracted me, the simplicity of the place and our vocation, the dialogue within Islam.
AMOS: To promote that dialogue, a place has been set aside within the church for Muslims to pray facing the holy city of Mecca. And on the wall, Arabic calligraphy in the shape of a dove spells out first phrase in the Muslim call to prayer. Father Paolo came here from Italy in the 1980s. A young seminary student looking for his life's work.
Rev. DALL'OGLIO: Each one of us, Muslims and Christians, we block the other in our concepts.
AMOS: He found his calling in this ancient place.
Rev. DALL'OGLIO: We don't know about how the other build his hope, his relationship with God and others, his feeling about the secret spiritual dimension of life. From that level, we are in a failure of dialogue, and we have to start and start again.
AMOS: After more than 1,000 years of living side by side, Muslims and Christians, he says, are still in need of better understanding.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.
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