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.