Faith: Islam’s third run for Europe

UPI, Dec. 11, 2002
By Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI Religion Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Dec. 10 (UPI) — For the third time in 13 centuries, Islam is set to gain a major foothold in Europe. This time it comes peacefully with Turkey’s attempt to join the ever-expanding European Union. It meets little resistance from Christianity, which has never been in a more feeble state on the continent whose civilization it shaped.

When Islam’s previous attempts to conquer the Occident failed, this was due to Christian resolve. In 732 A.D., the Frankish ruler Charles Martel threw back the Saracens at the Loire. In the 1520s, at the height of the Reformation in Europe, the Turks overran Hungary but were stopped at Vienna. Catholics and Protestants, though divided theologically, nevertheless united to confront this common challenger.

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Islam knocks at Europe’s doors with velvet gloves at this point. Turkey is a secular state, though governed by an Islamic party. For geopolitical reasons, the United States wants it to be part of the European Union.

France and Germany have proposed starting negotiations with Ankara over EU membership in July 2005. In a cover story, Britain’s Economist magazine proclaimed, “Turkey Belongs in Europe.” If it is admitted, 70 million Muslims will join the by then 460 million EU citizens, whose religious roots are predominantly Christian. These Turks may then settle and work anywhere between the North Cape and Sicily, Ireland and the Bosporus.

As the Economist wrote, Morocco might perhaps be next to knock on Europe’s door and why should Iraq not do the same at a later date?

A religion column is not the place to discuss the political merits or perils of these developments. But former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, chairman of the European Convention drawing up a constitution for the European Union, describes Turkey as by definition unacceptable as a member state. Also by definition, his reasons must be implicitly religious.

For not ethnicity but faith traditions distinguish Turkey from the rest of Europe — and more so today than only a century ago. In 1900, Christians made up 32 percent of that country’s citizens; now they are reduced to 0.1 percent. At the outbreak of World War I, almost half of Istanbul’s population was Christian, compared with 1 percent today.

Nobody suggests ill intent on Turkey’s part. However, Jobst Schoene, bishop emeritus of Germany’s Independent Lutherans and a renowned church historian, gave us pause when he told United Press International, “I fear we are approaching a situation resembling the tragic fate of Christianity in Northern Africa in Islam’s early days.”

In the 7th and 8th centuries, once-flourishing Christian civilizations in Africa vanished in a flash. Bat Ye’or, one of the world’s foremost students of Islam’s conquests reminds us that Christians were weak in those days because of sectarian squabbles. Some Christian groups actually welcomed the Muslims as “liberators” from other Christians.

Today’s Christian frailty in Western Europe is different. It is a post-Enlightenment affliction, combining theological ignorance, indifference, indiscipline and, presumably, loss of faith.

Europe owes most of its culture, art, and way of life to Christianity. Yet France, once called the first daughter of the Church, insisted until the overthrow of its last socialist-led government that Christianity and God not be mentioned in the new European constitution.

Only now after the departure of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a former Trotskyite, is there a chance that at least the “spiritual roots” of the continent’s civilization might perhaps be noted in this document — but not Christianity by name. That would not be politically correct.

In Germany, whose 1949 Basic Law (constitution) speaks in its preamble of a “responsibility before God and man,” the current Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and five other Cabinet members refused to say the traditional words, “so help me God,” when swearing their oath of office.

Add to this some other manifestations of Christianity’s weakness, and Schoene’s concerns seem very appropriate indeed. For example:

— The number of Germany’s Protestants, once a majority of the population, has shrunk from 47 million to 23 million in the last 50 years, and of those only about 3 percent attend Sunday services regularly.

— Five of the 24 territorial Protestant churches in Germany have decided to bless same-sex unions and ordain practicing homosexuals.

— In France, which has a population of 60 million, there are only 25,000 Roman Catholic priests left. Their average age is 68. Some look after 30 ore more parishes. Laymen are in charge of most church functions, such as Christian funerals.

— Anglicans are have become a minority in England.

— Spain, once the most stalwart Catholic country in Europe, has turned into one of the most secularized in less than a generation. Curiously, more and more Spanish women, whose nation had been ruled by Muslims for centuries, are now converting to Islam.

While Europe’s Christians don’t take their faith seriously anymore, notes Tuebingen University theologian Peter Beyerhaus, Muslim immigrants and their offspring are practicing their religion with great discipline.

Mosques are springing up all over the continent, often with substantial help from neighboring Christian congregations. “This does not mitigate the Muslims’ contempt for our putrid civilization.”

Even before Turkey and perhaps eventually Morocco will be allowed to join the European Union, dramatic demographic shifts are occurring within Europe because Muslims procreate at a rate three times higher than their Christian or ex-Christian neighbors.

“The average German family has 1.2 children,” said Beyerhaus, “but the average Muslim family here has 3.8.” In all, there are at least 2.5 million Muslims in Germany, 2 million in France and 1 million in the United Kingdom.

There is no sign that churches attempt to guide Western Europe’s new Islamic citizens to the very faith and value system that created the society in which these immigrants wish to raise their families.

“It is astonishing how blue-eyed (gullible) our churches are,” said Schoene, “they don’t even bother ask the advice of the experts on Christian-Islamic cohabitation — for example, the Syrian Orthodox, the Egyptian Copts or the Maronites in the Lebanon.”

Johannes Richter, the former regional bishop of Leipzig in Germany, compared the European environment into which Muslims are moving with a situation described in the Old Testament, a situation almost without prophecy: “And the word of the Lord was rare in those days.” (1Samuel 3:1).

However, the text goes on: “The lamp of God had not yet gone out.”

Said Schoene: “Perhaps God is using the Muslims to bang our Christian heads together.”

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