Christianity under Siege: As Islam Infiltrates Secular Europe, How Will the Religious Landscape Be Reshaped? Depending upon Who's Doing the Forecasting, the Rise of Islam in Europe Could Be the Nail in the Coffin for Institutional Christianity or the Harbinger of a Revival. Still Others Believe That an Aroused Christianity and Islam Could Pool Forces against Secularism

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Until recently, Amsterdam's Oude Kerk, or "Old Church," seemed the perfect symbol for Europe's religious situation. Founded in the 13th century, when such massive cathedrals expressed the faith of an entire continent, the Oude Kerk is today surrounded by the Dutch city's infamous red-light district.

In "Old Church Square" visitors can choose from among at least a haft-dozen brothels or sit down for a perfectly legal smoke in a hash bar. A bronze statue just outside the main door portrays a scantily clad woman in a provocative pose and carries the inscription, "Respect sex workers around the world."

Inside the cathedral, the atmosphere is hardly any more conducive to prayer. Today the church is a museum and tourist destination. Like kudzu swallowing up crops in the American South, secularism has all but enveloped the Oude Kerk--and with it, or so a longtime consensus once held, religious faith and practice across much of the old continent.

That's the way things seemed until 2004, when Amsterdam offered a shocking new metaphor for the collision between the sacred and the secular in today's Europe: the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical named Mohammed Bouyeri, the son of Moroccan immigrants to Holland.

Though most Muslims insist that such violence cannot be justified by Islamic belief, the van Gogh murder, in tandem with bombings by Muslim radicals in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, has nonetheless generated a new look at secular European assumptions about the public irrelevance of religion. Launching a global interfaith project, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently asserted, "Religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st century as political ideology was to the 20th."

'I'd buy Christianity'

No one knows exactly how many Muslims are in Europe today, in part because some are undocumented, and in part because several European nations don't include religion on their national census. Drawing upon various sources, the U.S. National Intelligence Council estimates that the Muslim population rose from 5 million in 1985 to 15 million in 2005, representing 200 percent growth. By 2050, the council expects 40 million Muslims in Europe, which would represent 15 percent of a population of roughly 500 million. (That's without factoring in the possible admission of Turkey to the European Union.)

At one level, the anxieties unleashed by this rising tide are basically cultural--that the erstwhile cradle of Christendom could find itself transformed into part of the dar at-Islam, or the global "house of Islam." More recently, worries have surfaced that a secular backlash against Muslim demands for special treatment could erode traditional privileges for established Christian churches across Europe.

For some, this all means that Christianity in Europe will increasingly find itself on the defensive. Others, however, see opportunity.

"If you are the type of person who buys stocks and bonds, I'd buy Christianity," said Odon Vallet, a professor of religion at the Sorbonne in Paris. "The price now is very low, so I think it has to go up."

Looking down the line at the implications of Europe's growing Muslim presence, observers say at least three trajectories for Christianity seem plausible: Depending upon who's doing the forecasting, the rapid rise of Islam in Europe could be the final nail in the coffin for institutional Christianity or the harbinger of a surprising Christian revival. Still others believe that an aroused Christianity and Islam could pool forces against the dominant secular milieu.

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One of these three trajectories is outlined in the Feb. 14 issue of the U.K.-based newsmagazine The Economist. new ambivalence about religion across the board. As an example of things to come, the story pointed to a 2001 decision from the European Court of Human Rights refusing to sanction an annulment issued by a Catholic tribunal in Italy. …