Islam rises as Christianity falls in Europe with Muslims soon to become a majority
July 3, 2006
In Europe, Islam rises, Christianity falls
Muslims may soon become majority
July 2, 2006
BY TOM HUNDLEY
Muslims pray at Al Fath mosque in Paris on May 26. Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis, the dean of American Middle East scholars, predicts Europe will be mostly Muslim by the end of this century. (MANCA JUVAN/Chicago Tribune)
Secularizing in U.S.
PARIS -- Al Fath Mosque is in a scruffy immigrant neighborhood not far from the neon-lit kitsch of the Pigalle district. On Friday afternoons, the mosque is jammed, and the overflow of worshippers spills into the streets.
Tourists who stumble on the scene reflexively reach for their cameras, struck by this unusual public manifestation of religiosity in a country where Christian belief has become passi.
In France and in almost every other European country, Christianity appears to be in a free fall. Although up to 88% of the French identify themselves as Catholic, only about 5% go to church on most Sundays; 60% say they "never" or "practically never" go.
But Islam is a thriving force. The 12 million to 15 million Muslims who live in Europe make up less than 5% of the total population, but the vitality of their faith has led some experts to predict that Islam will become the continent's dominant faith.
Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis, the dean of American Middle East scholars, flatly predicts that Europe will be Muslim by the end of this century.
George Weigel, a leading American theologian, frets about "a Europe in which the muezzin summons the faithful to prayer from the central loggia of St. Peter's in Rome, while Notre Dame has been transformed into Hagia Sophia on the Seine -- a great Christian church" will "become an Islamic museum."
Lewis and Weigel represent a trend among American thinkers who say they fear Europe's doom if it does not re-Christianize, and soon. Most European experts believe those fears are exaggerated.
France, with Europe's largest Muslim population, surely will be a test case.
A church in crisis
Little argument exists about the severity of the crisis facing the Catholic Church in France. In contrast with the vigorous (and masculine) face that French Muslims present to the world, a typical Sunday mass almost anywhere in France will feature an elderly priest preaching to a dwindling congregation of mostly elderly women.
"Mass is boring," said Odon Vallet, a religion professor at the Sorbonne. "The ceremony isn't very beautiful; the music is bad; the sermon is uninteresting. Mass is for people who have nothing else to do on a Sunday -- no sports, no hobbies, no shopping, no entertainment."
Islam is France's fastest-growing religion. But this is mainly a result of immigration patterns, not conversions. Most of the 4.5 million Muslims who make up about 7% of the French population are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants from former French colonies in north Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.
Global Islam is eager for converts. But in Europe, the situation is nuanced. According to Olivier Roy, a leading French scholar on Islam, Muslims in Europe would be happy for Christians to convert, while Christians merely want Muslims to become more secular.
While President George W. Bush proudly declares America "a nation of prayer," French President Jacques Chirac praises the virtues of French secularism. France developed a distinctly French notion of church-state separation more than a century ago in an attempt to curb the influence of the Catholic Church. Known as laicite, it allows all faiths equal status and ensures that all are equally divorced from the functions of the state.
Bruno Bourg-Broc, a deputy in the National Assembly and self-described committed Catholic, laments the erosion of the faith in France.
"We are a fundamentally Christian society," he said. "The landscape is formed of churches. It's part of our culture, our literature and painting." Whether people want it in the constitution or not, "we were formed in this way and should not be ashamed of it.
"The doctrine of Islam is to conquer and convert, and we must keep this in mind. I don't think there is a real risk here, but if it happens, it will be our own fault."
Hope for the future
Last year, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope and took the name Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, it was seen as a sign that he would refocus the church's energies on rebuilding the faith in Europe. The Vatican was heartened when a million young people turned out last August for World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, and heard the new pope urge them to rediscover Europe's Christian roots.
Some experts also are encouraged on Christianity's behalf if only because things can't get much worse.
"If you are the type of person who buys stocks and bonds, I'd buy Christianity," said Vallet of Sorbonne. "The price now is very low, so I think it has to go up."
Other analysts believe Europe's future is neither Christianity nor Islam, but secularism. A pragmatic reading of the numbers suggests that not only will Christianity never regain its dominant cultural role but also that churchgoers will be forced to recast themselves as minorities or subcultures.
"Who truly thinks that Benedict XVI is the future of Europe?" said Roy, the Islamic scholar.