Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Faith Matters (II): Muslim migration, a chance for the Church

By Uwe Siemon-Netto
Second of two parts

Occasionally when I am in Paris I chance upon taxis driven by women of dark complexion. They often speak a remarkably educated French and turn out to be university students or young professionals of North African descent. It has also happened to me that one of these cabbies admitted to being bi-religious: Muslim on Friday so as not to upset her family living in one of the grim housing estates at the rim of the French capital, and Christian on Sunday because she has secretly converted to either Roman Catholicism or evangelical Protestantism.

This is the potential flip side of the mass migration of Muslims into Western Europe, which so many pundits predict presages the imminent transformation of the Old World from a Christian into an Islamic culture. Adam Francisco, a young historian and Islamic affairs specialist teaching at Concordia University Irvine, Cal., warns against jumping to hasty conclusions.

“Politically some people might not like this influx of Turks and Arabs,” agrees Bonn-based sociologist of religion Thomas Schirrmacher, “but from a Christian point of view, this movement could also represent a great opportunity for the Church.” To mix gaming and religious metaphors, all bets are still open, theologically speaking.

Between five and six million Muslims live in France and some four million in Germany. “Ninety percent of all Muslims believe that Christianity in Europe has come to an end and will soon collapse,” says Schirrmacher’s wife, Christine, who directs the Islam Institute of the Evangelical Alliance in the German-speaking countries. When Muslims arrive in Germany, the Schirrmachers continue, their prejudices often seem confirmed. The churches don’t appear to take the Bible seriously as the living word of God. Few European Christians to read it at home. “We know that many Muslims would like to experience the use of Scripture and a good liturgy, which Islam does not offer, but find neither,” says Rev. Albrecht Immanuel Herzog, CEO of a conservative Lutheran publishing house in Neuendettelsau, Bavaria.

According to many students of the religious scene in Europe, Muslim women are especially open for a monotheistic alternative to the faith they were born into, a religion where so-called “honor murders” of members of their own sex occur at such a frightening level that a German-language website, www.ehrenmord.de, has been established to document the homicides committed by Muslim men against their female relatives for allegedly succumbing to Western culture. A stunning new German-Turkish movie titled “Die Fremde,” or “When We Leave,” focuses on this frightening phenomenon in Berlin so powerfully that the Christian Science Monitor considered it “too bad” that it did not make the Oscar nomination list for best foreign film.

A few years ago, Msgr. Aldo Giordano, now permanent observer of the Holy See at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, described the Muslim immigration into Western Europe as a “divine challenge;” he told me that Catholic and Protestant women’s groups discretely established contacts with Muslim women in Europe and Northern Africa. “These contacts are all the more important as in the Islamic world it’s the mothers who pass on their beliefs and values to their sons, who one day will head families,” said Giordano, then the secretary general of the European Catholic Bishops’ conference.

“Indeed, there are many groups of faithful Christians reaching out Muslim immigrants in Germany, visiting camps of asylum seekers, inviting refugees and immigrants to their congregations, and especially to Alpha courses, which are practical introductions to the Christian faith,” says Christine Schirrmacher.

Among the most stunning results of such forms of outreach I found in an independent Lutheran parish in a major eastern German city half of whose congregants are Iranian exiles; the church’s former pastor had led them to the Christian faith by using Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible as a textbook for teaching German as a second language.

It is difficult to quantify the overall success of such missionary efforts as no reliable statistics are available because much of these activities occur covertly but Christine Schirrmacher cautions against underestimating their significance. “True,” she says, “some ethnic Germans convert to Islam, young men often to ‘play being Muslim’ for a while, and young women when they marry immigrants. But at least as many Muslims become Christians.”

To this Rev. Herzog adds, “It would help if our churches did not make Christ look irrelevant by casting doubt on Scripture.” However, the Schirrmachers and Herzog confirm that many of the young generation of German pastors and theology professors are returning to a view of the Bible as the living word of God.

In France where huge Muslim ghettos that used to be Communist-run housing estates surround the major cities, between 400,000 and 500,000 are estimated to have converted to Christianity. According to Rev. Antoine Schluster of the French Protestant Federation, 10,000 Muslims join the Roman Catholic Church and 5,000 Protestant denominations.

These might not be huge numbers. Still, they are rarely reported, especially in the United States where the stereotypical definition of Europe as spiritually lost continent has become common currency. As Christine Schirrmacher reminds us, “Let’s remember who the Lord of history is: God, not man.”

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

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