Was the Virgin Mary a refugee in Pakistan?

Murree, Pakistan — Isa (Jesus) and his mother Maryam (Mary) occupy a special spot in the heart of Muslims, perhaps because they can so readily identify them in their own lives.

Jesus was persecuted because many Jews of the time did not believe in his message, or that he was the long-promised Messiah. His virgin birth was also disbelieved, leaving Mary’s purity and chastity in doubt.

No other faith, apart from Christianity, gives so much respect, honor and — above all — love, to Jesus and his mother as does Islam.

Muslims follow the teaching of their religion whose tradition has always referred to Mary as "Sitina Maryam" or "Hazrat Maryam," both titles meaning "our honorable Lady Mary" — and note the pronoun "our." Jesus’ name is followed by "Alyhee Alsalam," meaning "may peace be upon him."

Muslims believe that God sent a succession of Messengers to guide humanity. But instead of learning from and emulating these divinely inspired teachers, people down through the ages have cruelly victimized them and Jesus is at the top of the list. Mary, moreover, also had to pay a heavy price for being chosen to bear him as a virgin. No mother of any other Messenger had her honor and dignity smeared as did Mary.

Although the Qur’an does not mention where Mary died, Muslims believe that she was forced to leave Palestine as a refugee, travelling far and wide to escape society’s vicious war on her honor.

Among those places where Muslims believe Mary went to spend her last days is Murree, a mountainous village some 50 kms from Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad. Murree is a popular tourist resort among Pakistanis duringthe hot summer months, and attracts foreigner visitors year round.

Local legend has it that the Virgin’s tomb is at Murree and that even the name of the village itself, and the surrounding area, is derived from the Arabic Maryam — or, to be exact, from the phrase "Mai Mari da Asthan" ("Resting Place of Mother Mary").

When the British arrived here in the 1850s to establish a new hill-station in India (Pakistan was not yet in existence), Murree was still known as Mari. In 1875, the spelling was changed to the present one.

According to old records, "in 1898, Richardson, the Garrison Engineer, wished to demolish the tomb at the time of the construction of the defense tower. Shortly afterwards he died in an accident, and the locals connect the incident with his evil intentions towards the tomb."

The grave was thereafter promptly repaired by local Muslims; even today there are reports of occasional night sightings of unexplained lights in the vicinity of the grave, or a veiled female form made of light.

The Qur’an uniquely honors Mary in that she is not just the sole woman mentioned by name, but is also the only woman to whom the title of "Sediqa" or saint has been given. Other women are referred to through their family roles — as in the mother of Moses, the believing wife of the Pharaoh, the wife of Lot, the mother of Mary, the wife of Moses and her sister, etc.

British missionaries made clever use of the village of Murree and its important legend, building a school there called "Jesus and Mary."

Unlike Christianity, Islam does not teach that Jesus was crucified, although his people tried to crucify him. Islam holds that he was instead elevated into heaven by Divine command. So Jesus’ final resting-place on earth was never an issue for Muslims — but the resting-place of his mother was. And thus Pakistani Muslims proudly claim the village of Murree as the site of Mary’s tomb.

If you can take a deep breath while driving the winding, mountainous road from Islamabad, it is well worth a stop in Murree to relive this powerful religious legend. And there are worldly rewards as well, for at the next village of Bhurban you can take a break at the five-star Pearl Continental Hotel, with its breathtaking view of rolling hills and farms.