November 4, 2010

Skeptics Question 'Weeping' Virgin Mary Statue

Dalson Chen
November 4, 2010
Ottowa Citizen

The pastor of the Orthodox Christian church to which Fadia Ibrahim belongs is not endorsing her claims that her Virgin Mary statue is miraculous.

"I have nothing to do with that," said Rev. John Ayoub of the St. Ignatius of Antioch Church in Windsor.

"I can't agree with whatever she is saying."

But word continues to spread of the icon located in Ibrahim's front yard at 2764 Garvey Cres.

As of Wednesday, the story of the Madonna that supposedly cries healing oil had reached Detroit television and national news agencies.

Ayoub said he's well aware of the stir the statue has caused in the community and beyond. He said Ibrahim first confronted him with claims about the statue in March, when he was assigned to the parish.

But Ayoub said he has personally investigated the matter, spoken privately with Ibrahim at length, and he does not believe the statue is miraculous. "We don't go by the mob. We don't go by propaganda," he said.

Ayoub did not want his thoughts on the statue to be made public.

"I don't want to be in trouble. I don't believe in that at all, but ... I don't want to hurt the feelings of anybody," he said. "They (might) come here and fight me."

The priest said he has already received angry phone calls. "A week ago, a lady -- I never gave her my number -- she called me and said, 'Don't you believe?' And she started screaming at me."

Ayoub said that Ibrahim remains a beloved parishioner, but the church is not responsible for her, nor her statue. "If you want to believe her, you are free to believe her."

On Wednesday afternoon, a statement by Ayoub was posted on the church's website. It pointed out that the Antiochian Orthodox Christian church does not recognize nor worship statues -- it only recognizes the veneration of holy icons in two-dimensional paintings.

Ayoub wrote that the church will investigate according to procedure "under the watchful eye of our Bishop."

"Like any claim of miracles, our church requires concrete scientific proof of such claims. Such investigations take time and deep scientific and spiritual examination before any conclusion may be made."

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic diocese of London has decided not to investigate the statue any further. Mark Adkinson, a spokesman for the diocese, said that since Ibrahim is an Orthodox Christian, the matter is the purview of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.

"It's not within our jurisdiction to investigate," Adkinson said. "Any investigation that could be done, would be done by the Orthodox Church."

Nevertheless, a steady stream of believers continued to visit the statue on Wednesday.

Ibrahim could not be reached for comment. She was seen arriving at the house, but after exchanging some embraces with followers, family members hurried her inside and out of public sight.

"The priest say to her, 'You have to stop,'" said Marija Prepolec, a close friend of Ibrahim.

Acting on a complaint from a neighbour, the city has ordered Ibrahim to remove the statue's shrine or obtain a permit for it by Nov. 19.

Ibrahim is no longer accepting donations to fund a legal battle with the city over the issue.

A sign taped to the statue's enclosure reads: "No money is being accepted now as more than enough has been collected for the permit, variance, etc."

Fe Ligaya, another friend of Ibrahim, said someone has privately agreed to cover all the costs of keeping the statue in place. "The money that has been collected yesterday will go to the London Children's Hospital," Ligaya said.

For some, the miraculousness extends to Ibrahim herself. Prepolec, 64, claims that Ibrahim cured her of her heart condition by visiting her in hospital.

"When I go for angio, the doctor say 'Marija, your heart is like new,'" Prepolec said.

But not everyone felt the healing power. At 4 p.m., the small residential street was so clogged with vehicles that one impatient motorist was seen shouting his displeasure -- plus a few obscenities. "Go! You think this road is only for you?" said the angry male driver of a green pickup truck.

Watching from her porch across the street, Chris Hole said she saw a couple of other examples of bad behaviour earlier in the day.

She said she's aware of people visiting the statue late at night and in the early hours of the morning. But all the commotion doesn't bother her. "I figure it will die down, eventually," Hole said with a good-natured shrug.

Hole's friend, who didn't want to give his name, added: "They're not doing nothing illegal. The traffic is a little much now, but that's only because of all the publicity."

"It could be worse. It could be a drug home. People are allowed to have people come around. We don't see a problem with it."

From an academic perspective, the statue holds little mystery. Anne Shore, co-ordinator of the theology program at Assumption University, pointed out that the phenomenon is not particularly new.

"A lot of these statues that weep are helped, OK?" she said with a laugh. "You don't know until time unfolds whether it's a legitimate thing or not. I mean, there are other cases ... where statues have been found to be helped. People go out at night and put a little oil in, you know."

Shore said the theology program views weeping statues in a very different light than documented miracles in the lives of saints. She said things like Ibrahim's Mary statue are considered expressions of "popular piety" -- religious practices outside the official church, which are not the subject of theological study.

Related article:

'Weeping' Virgin Mary statue draws hundreds of worshippers to Windsor residence