FRANCE SEES ISLAM RISE, CHRISTIANITY FALTER
Some religious experts predict trend will lead Europe to be Islamic by end of century
By Tom Hundley
Originally published July 2, 2006
PARIS // Al Fath Mosque is in
a scruffy immigrant neighborhood not far from the neon-lit kitsch of Pigalle. On Friday afternoons the mosque is jammed, and
the overflow of worshipers - all men - 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 passe.
and in almost every other European country, Christianity appears to be in a free fall. Although up to 88 percent of the French
identify themselves as Roman Catholic, only about 5 percent go to church on most Sundays; 60 percent say they "never" or "practically
But Islam is a thriving force. The 12 million to 15 million Muslims
who live in Europe make up less than 5 percent 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 Islamic by the end of this century "at
the very latest."
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 become an Islamic museum."
Lewis and Weigel represent a trend among American thinkers who
fear Europe's doom if it does not re-Christianize, and soon. Most European experts believe
that those fears are exaggerated.
France, with Europe's largest Muslim population, surely will be a test case.
There is little argument about the severity of the crisis now 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 ministering to a dwindling congregation of mostly elderly women.
"Mass is boring," said Odon Vallet, a religion professor at the
Islam, meanwhile, 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 percent 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. In Africa,
especially, Islam and Christianity see themselves in fierce competition for souls.
But in Europe, the situation is
more 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.
For Rachid, a 22-year-old Moroccan who smuggled himself into France a year ago, Al Fath Mosque offers a kind of surrogate
family and support network in an unfamiliar land. Five times each day, he stops by to pray, fulfilling one of the most important
duties of a practicing Muslim.
"It helps me keep my Moroccan identity," said Rachid, whose last
name is being withheld because he is in France
illegally. "If I had to give up Islam to be French, I would never do it."
Despite the overflow at mosques, surveys suggest that the percentage
of Muslims attending Friday prayers is not much higher than that of French Catholics who go to Sunday Mass.
The image of jam-packed mosques is a "trompe l'oeil," said Roy,
the Islamic scholar. "You have many millions of square meters of churches in France,
but only a few thousand square meters of mosques."
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
Even though the statistical outlook is bleak, some experts are
encouraged, 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 the Sorbonne's Vallet. "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 churchgoers will be forced to recast themselves as minority groups or subcultures.
"Who truly thinks that Benedict XVI is the future of Europe?" asked
Roy. "Secularism is the future."