Imam finds miracle hard to swallow: A battle is looming in the village where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine, reports Robert Fisk in Cana, southern Lebanon

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The Independent Online
WATER into wine was never an easy miracle to accept in Cana. The Shias of this scruffy southern Lebanese village and their 85-year-old imam have no worries about Christ, of course, whom they happily acknowledge to have been a prophet. It is the wine bit that causes the problem, especially now that Christians have decided to identify the cave in which Jesus - according to local legend - spent the night after turning the regional mineral water into alcohol. Which is why a platoon of frozen soldiers from the Lebanese Army's Fifth Brigade, complete with armoured vehicle, are now standing guard over the cave each bleak and windswept night.

It started when an ancient cross was discovered deep inside the damp and groined interior of the grotto, a hole cut into volcanic rock high above a narrow wadi north of Cana, the village which might - or might not - be the biblical Cana.

Christians flocked to the village to observe this revelation, holding a midnight mass above the wadi on Christmas Eve and crawling with candles into the dank tunnel in which the cross was found. For the Shia clergy of Cana, however, this was too much, and a group of Muslim prelates arrived to stake their own claim to the land.

They placed two concrete blocks on top of the cave and attached to them a piece of cardboard on which is written: 'In the name of Allah the most merciful, in the presence of Sheikh Badredin al-Sair, we announce the start of the building here of the Mosque of the Koranic School. 13/12/93.'

The cardboard is still there because the Lebanese army knows a sensitive situation when it sees one, not least when the Hizbollah controls much of the surrounding countryside; and old Sheikh al-Sair, Cana's imam, is a pillar of the local establishment who has been safeguarding village morality for almost all his 85 years.

'We know that Jesus passed this way and came through the wadis and valleys of this area,' Sheikh al- Sair acknowledged yesterday afternoon as he sat, fluffy white beard streaming down his chest, in the cold porch of his home.

'But did Jesus actually stop here? We don't mind if tourists come here, but we don't want Cana to become a tourist resort with gambling and drinking. You know what drinking does - it makes men fornicate with their mothers and their sisters because they don't know who they are making love to when they are drunk. Anyway, why should Jesus have changed water, a gift from God which is good for your health, into the great cancer of alcohol? The story is rubbish.'

So much, then, for the gospel according to Saint John, chapter two, verse nine. But the sheikh has a point. Only Saint John's gospel records how Jesus, on the instigation of his mother, told a wedding party in Cana to fill six stone pots with water after they had run out of wine; the subsequent transformation of the water into wine was supposedly Christ's first miracle.

Even Cana's location is a matter of debate. Saint John refers to it as Cana of Galilee - and present-day Galilee is very definitely on the other side of the dangerous Lebanese-Israeli border, more than 15 miles away.

Nevertheless, Christian pilgrims settled in this largely Shia Muslim hinterland several hundred years ago. Their descendants, perhaps 25 per cent of the village, remain to this day, reminding visitors that archeologists long ago unearthed six stone waterpots and identified human figures carved into the rock. The pots are still there. So are the figures, weathered by more than a thousand years of Phoenician winters and, over the past few days, defaced by pilgrims who have scratched the faces in an attempt to steal the sacred stone.

The Muslims of Cana realised the implications of all this. The Pope will visit Lebanon this year and plans to travel to the south of the country. Could he be planning to lay claim to Cana? And would the village, whose only current foreign visitors are the bemused soldiers of the United Nations' Fijian battalion, be turned into an amusement park, an instigation to all the debauchery that fills the worst nightmares of old Sheikh al-Sair?

In a country which has only recently emerged from the horrors of a 15-year war between Christians and Muslims, his desire to build a mosque on top of the cave evoked its own dangers. The government dispatched its soldiers to watch over the cave while Nabih Berri, the Shia speaker of parliament who has just returned from a state visit to the Pope, denounced the intention to build a mosque as 'fanaticism'.

And strangely enough, Sheikh al- Sair has begun to mellow. He now claims not to know who placed the concrete blocks for the mosque above the cave, even though his son - now apparently 'travelling abroad' - is said to have been responsible.

'It is up to the people to decide about the mosque,' he said.

And they have. The Muslim owner of the wadi has announced he does not want a mosque on his land and Mr Berri has declared that the discovery of the cross is final 'proof' that Christ performed his first miracle in Lebanon. Just in time for the Pope.