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VATICAN LETTER (UPDATED) May-19-2008 (800 words) Backgrounder. With photo posted May 16. xxxi

Keeping the faith: Muslim immigrants integrate with Christians' help

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- With the Vatican combining two priorities into one meeting, the special needs of immigrant families were the center of attention at the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers.

The members of the council -- cardinals and bishops from around the world -- and invited experts spent three days discussing the special needs of families on the move. Within their concern for the family and for migration, they reviewed church teaching on the family, explored the latest statistics on immigration patterns and offered practical advice for pastors.

A recurring theme of the meeting was the challenge posed by cultural and religious differences between new arrivals and their host countries.

Sara Silvestri, a young Italian political science professor at City University in London, spoke of the importance of intercultural dialogue in helping immigrant families stay united, integrate into their new societies and strengthen those societies with their values.

Her particular field of expertise is religion and politics, and her most recent research has focused on the experiences of Muslim immigrants, particularly women.

Looking at the countries the immigrants came from, their reason for moving and how long ago they resettled, Silvestri is convinced that the key obstacle to integration is economic difficulty, particularly because of unemployment or underemployment.

Muslims apparently have greater ease integrating into U.S. society than into European countries, she said, but the difference is not so much the host country as the fact that most Muslim immigrants to the United States are professionals who moved for work or advanced studies or because they are political refugees seeking safety. Those struggling in Europe tend to be unskilled laborers who migrated in search of work.

On a cultural level, she said, "a major difficulty felt by Muslims -- both immigrants and citizens -- is to cope with or to resist the secular mentality" they see as pervasive, especially in Europe.

Their impression of a societal "hostility" toward religion, Silvestri said, leads a surprising number of Muslim parents to enroll their children in Catholic or other Christian schools.

"They value the fact that Christian schools teach the existence of God, they teach respect for family values, they teach good morality and appropriate behavior," including respect for the elderly, generosity and "a more conservative attitude toward sexuality," she said.

"To those who say Christians and Muslims are always antagonists, I reply that that is not the outcome of my research," Silvestri said in an interview.

While Christians and Muslims are not going to find agreement on their major doctrinal differences, she said, they share some key values that make it possible not only to school their children together, but also to create the bonds that help immigrants integrate.

The shared values, Silvestri said, make the schools important locations for exercising a concrete form of intercultural dialogue.

"Sometimes political correctness has gone too far, cutting off opportunities (for dialogue) rather than providing more," she said.

For example, Silvestri said that while talking to Muslim families she has found no opposition to a school explaining to all students the meaning of Christmas or Easter; it is part of the local culture.

"They are much more afraid of their children being taught the value of nihilism or secularism," she said.

A sincere welcome, outreach, dialogue and friendship can be of immense assistance in helping Muslim immigrants, especially women, establish themselves in their new country, Silvestri said.

The stress of moving, the strangeness of a new culture -- particularly if it appears morally offensive -- and a lack of decent employment for the head of the family all contribute to stress in the family and the potential isolation of women in Muslim families, she said.

But even more, Silvestri said, immigrants who are attached to their faith and see their new countries as hostile to religion need to know that their new neighbors take their faith seriously, too.

"For instance, some people in Britain say Muslims are not integrated because they do not participate in social life, they are not involved enough in the political sector. But when Muslims begin to get involved, they are looked upon as very dangerous" because people assume they are trying to impose their religion on others, she said.

"At the same time, Christianity is seen -- wrongly, in my view -- as something OK because it is considered a private faith," one which does not impact a member's positions on public issues, she said.

Christians themselves have a responsibility to show their new Muslim neighbors that they, too, endeavor to live their faith and that they take seriously its teachings, Silvestri said.

"Faith has meaning only when it enters into the life of individuals," she said.


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