by David J. Rusin
As Muslim enrollment increases at Christian schools, especially in Europe, so too does interfaith conflict at such institutions. A recent piece in Le Figaro highlights the stresses placed on French Catholic schools in particular. For example, the report describes how one had set up a crib for Advent, but "a Muslim parent demanded its removal, saying 'a Muslim cannot hear that Jesus is the Son of God.'" At another, Muslims walked all over a well-intentioned but hapless administrator:
A headmistress … offered Muslim students a room in which to pray and to help them avoid being caught in rain in the school courtyard. The students have turned it into a prayer room and invite other people who have nothing to do with the school to pray with them. Since then the director has been unable to use this space for other activities.
Of course, Christian schools also share many of the challenges faced by secular ones, such as students refusing to swim during Ramadan due to fear of swallowing water (an old standard). No word from Le Figaro on whether Muslims in French Catholic schools respond to lessons on evolution or the Holocaust any more positively than their public school counterparts do.
A 2008 New York Times article explains that France's hijab ban in state-run classes has pushed Muslims to Catholic schools, which are not bound by this law and must accept students of all faiths to qualify for subsidies. Yet even the less critical Times piece could not ignore the ensuing cultural friction. For example, it relates the story of one Catholic school's headmaster who, after a series of accommodations, finally had to "put his foot down when students asked to remove the crucifix in a classroom they wanted for communal prayers during Ramadan."
Christian schools elsewhere are caught in a similar cycle. NIS News reported in 2008 that "two Amsterdam secondary schools with a Christian basis are to close during [Eid al-Fitr] to accede to their Muslim pupils." A year later, a Dutch Catholic elementary school with a handful of Muslims was planning to serve halal food at a Christmas meal, but officials reversed course following parental outrage. In the UK, bishops have recommended that Catholic schools include prayer rooms and washing facilities for Muslims. The Times of London has also noted that at least one Muslim-heavy Church of England school "no longer observes the requirement to have an act of daily collective worship that is 'consistently and recognizably Christian.'"
Showing more backbone, Catholic schools in Ireland have banned niqabs for pupils, while an English one recently barred a face-covering visitor. The board of Trinity University in Texas, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, also earns credit for resisting demands, initially driven by Muslim students, to remove the phrase "In the Year of Our Lord" from diplomas.
Overall, the situation in many Christian schools resembles David Solway's analogy of the West's multicultural experiment: you welcome a guest into your home, only to watch him "introduce a new set of house rules which you, the proprietor, are expected to abide by." But who really deserves greater blame here: the pushy guest or the owner who is too timid to stand his ground?
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