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Europe’s Muslims worry bishops

NCR Staff

Catholics passing through Rome naturally gravitate toward St. Peter’s square. In the shadow of the massive Bernini columns, many ruminate about where the church might be heading in the new millennium about to dawn.

If Catholics want to see the future, however, they might do better to visit Rome’s main bus terminal instead.

There, as in other spots where one can peel back the layers of a city and see below the tourists and the local elites, travelers sometimes feel more like they’re in Istanbul or Cairo than on the continent. Many signs are in Turkish or Arabic, fast food vendors sell couscous and hummus, and many of the women wear veils.

Such scenes convey a truth with vast significance for the next century: Under the impact of three decades of north-south immigration, Europe today is where Islam meets the First World.

That point has been much in the air at the Oct. 1-23 European synod, where the question of how the Catholic church here ought to position itself in the face of new diversity has been discussed in several interventions.

Some speakers have warned of an Islamic conquest of Europe.

“The ‘dominion’ has already begun with the ‘petro-dollars,’ used not to create work in the poor North African or Middle Eastern countries, but to build mosques and cultural centers in Christian countries with Islamic immigration, including Rome, the center of Christianity,” said Archbishop Giuseppe Bernardini, a 72 year-old Italian who heads the Izmir archdiocese in Turkey.

Bernardini said he has lived in predominantly Muslim nations for 42 years. His comments came in a written intervention submitted to the synod Oct. 13.

Bernardini was not the only one to sound an alarm. “History teaches us that peaceful cohabitation between Islam and Christianity is precarious,” said Alain Besançon, a member of the Institut de France and a synod participant. He warned that “a church uncertain of its faith is endangered by conversion to Islam.”

Besançon called on the church to educate its members to resist Islamic encroachment.

In contrast, Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels -- while acknowledging the challenge of dialogue with fundamentalist forms of Islam -- challenged Catholicism to support the positive elements of the Islamic faith. “We have much to learn,” Danneels said, such as “the transcendence of God, prayer and fasting, and the impact of religion on social life.”

Archbishop Karl Lehmann of Germany told journalists that Christians should better understand the internal dynamics of Islam in Europe before passing judgment. Fundamentalism is merely one element, Lehmann said; there are also moderates who would welcome Christian cooperation.

The contrast among the four points of view suggests the basic choice facing church leaders: whether to embrace Europe’s new pluralism or to fortify the church against it.

“There is a desire among many Muslims in Europe to work out a form of Islam that is unique,” said Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel, who runs the secretariat of interreligious dialogue for the Jesuit order worldwide. “The question is whether we’ll meet them halfway.”

The Vatican’s official 1999 count puts the number of Catholics in the world at just over 1 billion. While estimates vary, most experts peg the total number of Muslims at around the 1 billion mark as well.

Since the 1970s, waves of Muslim immigration from North Africa and the Middle East have transformed the demographics of Europe. Because their families tend to have birth rates higher than the European average -- parts of Northern Europe would actually be de-populating were it not for immigration -- the Islamic presence in Europe has risen dramatically.

According to U.N. statistics, the Islamic population grew by more than 100 percent in Europe from 1989 to 1998, to 14 million, representing approximately 2 percent of the population. (Over the same period, the Muslim population in the United States grew by 25 percent to 4.9 million.)

The proof of what’s happening is on the streets. Sections of Paris look and sound more like the West Bank than the Left Bank, and Marseilles is poised to become the first European city with a non-European majority. Some estimates hold that within 25 years, one in four residents of France will practice Islam.

A resident who knows the scene in Rome says that in many of the city’s famous Italian restaurants -- long considered carriers of Roman culture -- the cooking is often done by Egyptians.

Advocates of pluralism welcome the new diversity. Across the continent, however, there is also a darker view, one that sees foreigners as competitors for jobs, for social services and -- perhaps most of all -- for cultural ascendancy.

The European mood can be glimpsed from the Oct. 3 national elections in Austria, where the far-right Freedom Party captured almost 30 percent of the vote, by far the best showing yet for an extremist party in a European election. The party ran on an anti-immigrant platform, even resurrecting a term for “over-foreignization” that had been taboo in the German-speaking world because of its association with Nazi racial policies.

“We’ve got the Poles who concentrate on car theft. We’ve got the former Yugoslavs who are burglary experts. We’ve got the Turks who are superbly organized in the heroin trade. And we’ve got the Russians who are experts in blackmail and mugging,” said Jorg Haider, the outspoken leader of the Freedom Party in a speech leading up to the election.

Haider has proposed segregating Austrian schoolchildren from foreigners and limiting some social benefits to ethnic Austrians.

Papal olive branch

At the synod, the talk has been nowhere near this blunt. Differences over Islam for participants here have been less about matters of substance than mood. Some accent the threat posed by Islam’s growth, while others stress the need to acknowledge its diversity. A welcoming reaction, they say, could help shape the future direction of Islam in Europe.

The anxiety over Islam came into sharp focus at the synod through Bernardini and Besançon’s calls to arms.

“How can we ignore in all this a program of expansion and re-conquest?” Bernardini asked. He urged the pope to call a special synod or symposium on immigration, with special focus on the problem of Islam. The event should include the Reformed and Orthodox churches, Bernardini said.

Bernardini said that while it was necessary to distinguish between “the fanatic and violent minority” and the “peaceful and honest” majority in Islam, he believed even peaceful Moslems would, without hesitation, “follow orders given in the name of Allah.”

Bernardini said a Moslem leader once told him: “Thanks to your democratic laws, we will invade you. Thanks to our religious laws, we will dominate you.”

There are between 4 million and 5 million Muslims in France today, Besançon said, roughly the same as the number of practicing Catholics (the total population of France is 58 million). Both the numbers Besançon uses and the comparison he draws, however, are disputed.

He offered several examples, including the Nestorians, the Monophysites of Syria and Egypt, the Donatists of the Magreb, and the Spanish Aryans. All are Christian communities in the Mediterranean basin that broke away from the church of Rome in the first millennium, most of whose members over time adopted Islam.

Most provocatively, Besançon said Catholics must stop using “faulty expressions” such as “the three revealed religions,” “the three religions of Abraham” and “the three religions of the Book” to refer to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The suggestion was that these terms implied a false equivalence between Christianity and Islam.

This last point was viewed by some as an especially remarkable statement, given that the pope himself has used the language of Christians and Muslims as “brothers in Abraham” at least five times -- in a homily in Ankara, Turkey, in 1979; in a radio address to the peoples of Asia in 1981; in an address to Muslim workers in Mainz, Germany in 1980; in an address to a Rome colloquium in 1985; and in a homily in Gambia in 1992.

Excerpts of the pope’s talks appear in Recognize the Spiritual Bonds which Unite Us: 16 years of Christian-Muslim Dialogue, a 1994 publication of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.

“As I have often said in other meetings with Muslims, your God and ours is one and the same, and we are brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham,” the pope said in Rome in 1985.

At a synod news conference, a special representative appointed by the pope, Archbishop Józef Miroslaw Zycinski of Lublin, Poland, seemed to put some distance between Besançon and the bishops. Besançon was “expressing his personal opinion,” Zycinski said, and “we cannot censor him.”

Yet Zycinski clearly shared some of Besançon’s concern. “If Islam evolves in the direction of greater religious openness, then there is the possibility of dialogue,” Zycinski said. “But if a fundamentalist version dominates in which religion is mixed with politics, then optimism will not be justified.”

One irony is that this sense of a looming conflict comes under a papacy that has dedicated enormous energies to opening contacts with Islam. John Paul II has met with Muslims more than 50 times, a number that, according to experts, surpasses the total number of encounters with all previous popes combined.

Interfaith observers say John Paul enjoys greater credibility across the Islamic world, in part because his opposition to the U.S.-led Gulf War and the sanctions in Iraq has demonstrated that the pontiff is no longer “the chaplain of NATO,” as Pius XII had once been dubbed. If the pope does visit Iraq in December, in defiance of strong reservations expressed by the Clinton administration, it will be another significant confidence-building measure.

Threat exaggerated

Moreover, Catholics and Islamic nations have in recent years made common cause at United Nations-sponsored population conferences, opposing developed Western nations and many women’s groups on issues such as birth control and abortion.

In the eyes of some, however, these acts of cooperation conceal a more fundamental tug-of-war for the religious balance of power, a contest that in coming years will be played out in Europe as well as Africa and North America.

Speakers at the synod have reflected this view. Bishop Klemens Pickel, responsible for Latin-rite Catholics in Russia, suggested that Catholics and Orthodox could make common cause in their resistance to the encroachments of Islam. “We both share the consciousness of being in a defensive position” against Islam, Pickel said.

Even Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Vatican’s agency on inter-religious dialogue, seemed to endorse the anxiety about Islam. “Many lay faithful know too little about the Catholic faith,” he said. “The risk when such Catholics meet other believers is therefore great.”

Arinze called for training of more Catholic specialists on other religions, “especially Islam,” focusing on “how to meet their followers” -- a line that some observers interpreted to mean, “how to resist their advances.”

A Catholic specialist in dialogue with Muslims, however, told NCR that fears about Islam are often inflated. For one thing, dramatic growth in the Islamic population does not change the fact that Muslims remain a significant cultural minority. They are at most 2 percent of Europe’s total population.

“The numbers get exaggerated by everyone,” said Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel, head of the secretariat for inter-religious affairs for the Jesuit order. “Politicians want to make the numbers seem larger because it generates fear they can exploit,” he said. “On the Islamic side, there’s a tendency to exaggerate as a kind of boast.”

Moreover, Michel said that comparisons such as Besançon’s -- that stack the total number of Moslems against the number of practicing Catholics -- are a classic case of mixing apples and oranges.

“Recent research shows that when Muslims enter heavily secularized European societies, they do not practice in greater percentages than do Christians,” Michel said.

While there are difficulties in defining what it means for a Moslem to practice the faith -- whether one considers Friday prayer, taking part in the Ramadan fast, or performing the five daily prayers obligatory under Islamic law -- Michel said the general point is that European Muslims seem no more cohesive or zealous than European Catholics.

A better comparison would stack the total number of baptized Catholics against the total number of Muslims, with a result that would seem far less menacing, Michel said.

Michel acknowledged that some Muslim leaders have called for an aggressive effort to spread Islam in Europe to rescue the West from moral and spiritual decline. Yet there is little evidence this is happening.

“Some Europeans are becoming Muslims, but it also works the other way -- some Muslims are becoming Christian,” Michel said. Some estimates, for example, are that at least 10 percent of the people preparing for adult baptism in France come from a Muslim background.

Indeed, many experts on religious movements say that Europeans today are much more likely to convert to an aggressively evangelical group such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses than to Islam. There are 32 Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Halls in Rome, for example, in contrast to one mosque.

Other church leaders say the notion of Islam as a unified force is more caricature than reality. At a session for German-speaking journalists at the synod, Lehmann stressed there is more internal pluralism within Islam than many Christians perceive.

In his diocese, Lehmann said, are five mosques that were under moderate leadership until the past year, when fundamentalist elements moved in. Now the moderates hope to build a sixth mosque and have turned to Lehmann for assistance.

Some Christians complain about the lack of religious freedom within Islamic societies, charging it is hypocritical for Muslims to demand fair treatment in the First World when their governments are unwilling to grant it at home.

Here, too, Michel said the picture is often distorted. “When people talk about the lack of religious freedom, they almost always mean Saudi Arabia, where you are forbidden to have priests,” Michel said. “But go next door to Oman, where the Sultan has given permission to build four new parishes. Go to Dubai, which has the largest Christian church in the Middle East.”

Some futurists expect that the Islamic presence in Europe will, in the long run, have a greater impact on Islam than on Europe. Raised to appreciate cultural values such as pluralism and democracy, a new generation of Muslim elites may push Islam in a more moderate direction worldwide.

Michel said this is a possible scenario. Another is that xenophobia and hostility will push Muslims into a defensive position, exacerbating tensions between Islamic nations and the West.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999