Europe's churches find new spirit from unexpected source: Muslim refugees

Though Protestant and Catholic churches have aided refugees from the Mideast out of altruism, doing so has also ginned up enthusiasm among congregants – and even spurred some refugees to convert.

Ina Fassbender/Reuters/File
Beds for migrants, separated by impromptu partition screens, are set up inside a Protestant church in Oberhausen, Germany, October 30, 2015.
Markus Schreiber/AP
The spire of the Immanuel Church in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district is silhouetted in the evening's sky on Dec. 26, 2015.

On a recent Sunday in Broby in southern Sweden, some 100 people settled in for morning service at their Lutheran church. There was nothing unusual about the liturgy – apart from the fact that some 20 worshipers were wearing headphones to hear a simultaneous translation. They were asylum seekers from Muslim countries.

Their presence has grown increasingly customary at this 1930s-era, peach-colored church in the past half year. In fact, as the population of asylum seekers has grown in this town of 3,000, so too has a new curiosity about Christianity.

Reverend Dan Sarkar, the local vicar here, says it started last summer when a Syrian man turned up at their doors. “He said, ‘I don’t want to be a Muslim anymore. Can you tell me about what it’s like to be a Christian?,’” Rev. Sarkar recalls. “Then an Iranian turned up asking about it, too, and since then there has been a steady stream of new people.” Sarkar decided to launch a weekly baptism class for the newcomers, to which he later added a weekly Christian education class. Most attend both.

As many fear an influx of Islam into Europe, Christianity is also getting an unexpected – if anecdotal – boost. “The humanitarian and charitable efforts on behalf of refugees have given new meaning to both Catholic and Protestant churches in Europe,” says Andrew Chesnut, an expert on global Christianity at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Partially it’s a matter of logistics. Facing a declining number of parishioners, churches have the space and infrastructure to offer temporary or permanent housing or host language and integration courses. It's also driven by a sense of religious purpose: Europe’s Catholics, buoyed by Pope Francis’s appeal in September for every parish to house a refugee family, have mobilized in a massive humanitarian effort. Protestant volunteers have been driven by the same spirit to help.

But churches are also experiencing a development that reaches beyond exercising their charitable muscle: people who genuinely want to explore Christianity. Some are just seeking solace in a spiritual community, while others are actually converting.

And although conversion of Muslims is not without controversy – and won’t significantly reverse declines in Christianity – the migration taken together is amounting to what Mr. Chesnut says is a “re-enchanted European religious landscape” among European congregants and newly arrived refugees and migrants alike.

Energized congregations

Caritas, the charitable arm of the Catholic Church, has sat on the front lines of the crisis. In Austria, Caritas provides housing to a third of the nearly 100,000 asylum seekers who entered the country last year and are waiting to see if they will be granted refugee status. The group has had to hire 500 more employees, says spokesperson Margit Draxl, and welcomed 15,000 new volunteers to their efforts.

At one of their centers in the capital Vienna, which houses some 230 people, two-thirds of them men, construction is underway to turn the residence into permanent housing. Bunk rooms that house up to 50 will be divided into single rooms housing two to four.

In Belgium, Caritas International and local bishops launched an appeal in August to homeowners willing to rent out property to those who have received refugee status - one of a new refugee's greatest challenges. Caritas agreed to act as the intermediary. Nearly 500 offers have come in, says Gilles Cnockaert, a spokesman, and he says the group has been flooded by those asking how they can help.

Not all have rolled up their sleeves. In rural, southeastern Poland, Jerzy Paul, a national parliamentarian in Warsaw who is from this region, says his reaction to Pope Francis’s appeal is simple: he’d welcome Christian refugees if he had to but not Muslim ones. His position is common in this part of Poland where, though devoutly Catholic, there has been a generalized rejection of Muslim newcomers.

This weekend Germany’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx, meanwhile, called for reducing the number of refugees into the country, saying the country can’t “take in all the world’s needy.”

Teaching the Bible to Persians

Others have seen this as an unparalleled opportunity. With church membership on the decline among Germany’s Lutherans and Catholics, refugees have been a welcome, if unexpected, addition.

“I was supposed to be retiring, so I chose this job thinking it would be a quiet place,” says Sister Rosemarie Götz, a Lutheran deaconess at the Haus Gotteshilfe church in Berlin.

It turned out to be quite the opposite. An Iranian woman showed up wanting to learn about the Bible, and soon Afghans, Kurds, and other Iranians followed. “I improvised,” says Sister Rosemarie. “We read the Luther Bible and I explained it word by word.”

Haus Gotteshilfe now runs Bible classes and baptism preparation attended by some 60 refugees, and Sunday services have grown so crowded that the congregation has decided to add a Persian-language service. Reflects Sister Rosemarie, who has already baptized many of them: “I would never have thought that I’d be teaching the Bible to Persians.”

Germany’s Lutheran church has sent an official guide to its pastors on how to deal with asylum seekers eager to convert.

Sweden’s congregations are also moving into uncharted territory. At St. Clara’s church in central Stockholm, Sunday services are now translated into Farsi. The Centrumkyrkan, a Pentecostal church in the town of Alfta in central Sweden, is now finding itself a destination for Syrians, Albanians, Ethiopians, and others staying at the local refugee residence. It recently launched an Alpha course – which teaches the basics of Christianity – specifically for them. The refugees, in turn, boost service attendance.

The right reasons?

The conversion movement has raised some eyebrows. Some religious groups have been criticized for aggressively seeking to convert Muslims who find themselves in a precarious situation. Officials in Germany have also questioned how genuine it is since asylum seekers can claim likely religious persecution if their claims are rejected.

But many religious workers and refugees report a real curiosity amid the destruction of war, family separation, terrorism, and the biggest migration in Europe since World War II.

One asylum seeker in Nuremberg, Germany, a father from Syria who did not want his name published, spoke with bitterness about his religion. He isn’t considering conversion, but he says he does ask himself why “German Christians are the ones doing all the work, while Muslim countries aren’t helping.”

Sarkar says that such probing is common. “Some of our participants want to leave Islam but aren’t sure which religion they’d like to belong to, while others have already left Islam and know they want to become Christians,” he says.

But the process of conversion, Sarkar tells the asylum seekers, is not to be taken lightly. “I tell every new participant: ‘Being here won’t improve your chances of getting asylum. On the contrary, if you convert and are rejected for asylum you will face extreme problems when you leave Sweden.’” Anybody who doesn’t agree with the conditions should leave the class, Sarkar tells his pupils.

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