In this Feb. 6, 2016, file photo, a woman holds a placard during a Pegida demonstration against immigration and Islamization in Amsterdam. The refugee crisis and the threat of terrorism in Europe are very much related to one another in the minds of many Europeans, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center across the continent. Many Europeans also worry that migrants will become an economic burden and take away their jobs and social benefits. Populist parties all over the continent have successfully increased their numbers by campaigning against Muslim migrants, including the right-wing Alternative for Germany or Austria’s Freedom Party. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, file)

In Europe, religious minorities face mounting hostility, harassment

PARIS (RNS) — A decade ago, Austria was a European country where Muslims felt they could live in peace. Islam was a recognized religion since 1912, the population seemed tolerant and the government maintained a constructive dialogue with community leaders.

Now the government includes a far-right party openly against Muslims and migrants, some mosques have recently been closed down as security threats and politicians are asking whether Muslims should be barred from fasting at school during Ramadan.

Times are getting more difficult for members of minority religions across Europe as nationalism, security fears and anti-immigrant movements gain ground. Trends building up since 9/11 have accelerated in the past few years, especially hitting Muslims and Jews.

Carla Amina Baghajati from the Austrian Islamic religious community gestures during an interview with The Associated Press in Vienna on Sept. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Carla Amina Baghajati, a Muslim school administrator in Vienna, sounded nostalgic as she reminisced about the not-so-distant past. “Even in little Austria, global trends hit us,” she told RNS.

“The old days are long gone,” she said. “If you’re visibly Muslim on the street, for example a woman with a headscarf, you’re looked at differently now. I haven’t met anyone who says it’s like it used to be.”

Casual insults and discrimination are frequent now but young Muslims tell her they don’t bother reporting them. “They say, ‘What’s the use?’” she said.

The Washington-based Pew Research Center issued a report on religious freedom around the world last week that found that Europe registered the sharpest increase in “social hostilities concerning religion” in 2016, the last year for which it has full statistics.

About one-third of European countries had political parties that openly agitated against religious minorities in 2016, a jump from one-fifth the previous year, it said. The number of like-minded activist groups harassing minorities was also on the rise.

“The majority of social groups displaying this kind of nationalist or anti-immigrant and anti-minority activity – 25 out of the 32 – were in European countries,” the report said. Harassment was aimed mostly at Muslims and Jews, although other faiths — including some Christian groups in a few places — also faced discrimination.

Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center.

The religious freedom report followed another Pew survey issued in May that showed about half the continent’s Christians — both observant and nonpracticing — thought Islam was not compatible with European values.

Surveys like these can give only partial pictures of how the times have changed. Major issues such as the current migration crisis and violent attacks on minorities grab global headlines, but lower-level hostility slips under the media radar.

The current migration wave, which crested in 2015 with over a million newcomers — mostly Muslims — and prompted clampdowns on entry across Europe, has also made “migrant” and “Muslim” synonymous for many Europeans.

Baghajati, who deals with women’s issues for the main Islamic association in Austria, said the government used to regularly invite Muslim leaders to take part in panel discussions on religious issues.

Under the new government of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), the invitations have stopped. “They invite alarmists onto the podium but not us,” she said.

The openly anti-immigrant FPÖ has started a campaign to ban fasting during Ramadan in all state schools. Posters show a veiled girl in school with the headline: “No eating, no drinking, no learning.”

Children are exempted from fasting but teenagers are supposed to follow Ramadan rules. The government, Baghajati said, thinks that “Islam is a bloc, static and dangerous, and all you can do is tell them what to do. There is no partnership anymore.”

Similar difficulties can be found across Europe. France is one of the strictest countries, with a law against headscarves in state schools and full-face veils in public.

Beachside towns and municipal pools have tried to use France’s law on secularism to ban the “burkini” — a modest full-body bathing suit for Muslim women — by arguing it was a sign of religious affiliation banned at publicly owned beaches and pools. There have been mixed results enforcing it.   

The Dutch Parliament banned full-face veils this month, as did Denmark’s last month. Belgium did so in 2011. Building mosques, authorizing minarets, allowing prayer time at work and teaching Islam alongside other faiths in state schools are also controversial topics across Europe.

The new populist government in Italy, whose Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has the slogan “Italians First” on his Twitter page, has closed Italian ports to ships that rescue migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats. He has suggested a census of Roma or "gypsy" people in the country and deportation of those who are not Italian citizens. Critics promptly asked which minority he would want to investigate next.

Salvini told a rally in Florence last week that he opposed giving Muslims permits to build new houses of worship. “What’s urgent now is to create jobs, not mosques,” he said.

In Germany, the conservative Christian Social Union party in traditionally Catholic Bavaria is threatening to topple the coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel — their official ally in national politics — if she doesn’t agree to even tighter border controls against migrants.

“European politics in general has become unhinged. The mainstream is falling apart on both sides, the center-left and now the center-right,” said British European affairs analyst Paul Taylor, who writes for the Brussels-based Politico Europe.

“Almost wherever you go, the mainstream right is being overtaken by the extreme right and being pulled in that direction,” he said.

In eastern Europe, nationalist governments have simply refused to take in migrants, despite European Union guidelines calling for them to be shared out among all EU members. Poland and Hungary, the leaders in this anti-migrant movement, have repeatedly said they are defending their countries’ Christian traditions against outsiders.

Although there are almost no Jews left in the region after the Holocaust and the communist era, populist rhetoric resorts to anti-Semitism to rally support.

Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich speaks at a gala celebration marking the opening of an American Jewish Committee office for Central Europe in Warsaw, Poland, on March 27, 2017. The AJC, a 111-year-old global organization based in New York, has a long history of engagement in the region. It was the first Jewish organization to call for recognizing German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it supported central and eastern European nations as they worked to become democracies and join the European Union and NATO. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

“We’re hearing things we haven’t heard since 1968, (like) ‘there’s no place for you in Poland,’” said the country’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, referring to a communist-era wave of anti-Semitism.

In February, Poland made it a crime to say Poles participated in the Holocaust, something  historians insist is true. Tough criticism from abroad — including from the United States and Israel — prompted claims in the media that Poland was under attack by Jews.

Warsaw backed down on Wednesday (June 27), saying it would remove the criminal penalties from the law.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has openly vilified the U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros, who was born to a Jewish family in Budapest, as an enemy of the state for promoting democracy and liberal causes including  immigration into the region.

In France, where Muslims outnumber Jews by a ratio of 10-to-1, several violent attacks on Jews in recent years have made international news. These include the murders of a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 and of four hostages at a kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015.

Reinforced police and military patrols at Jewish locations have reduced the number of attacks by half since then, said Bernard Edinger, a French Jewish journalist who writes for French and Israeli publications.

What the Pew survey does not investigate, he added, is the sensitive question of how much of the harassment of Jews comes from Muslims opposed to Israel and Zionism. “In France, the old-fashioned Nazi-style anti-Semitism is microscopic,” he said.

Much of this harassment comes in areas like the poorer northern suburbs of Paris where Jews and Muslims have long lived side by side. Jews have responded by transferring their children from state to Jewish-run schools or moving out altogether.

“About 60,000 to 70,000 Jews lived there before 2000 and now only 10,000 are left,” he said. Some move to other neighborhoods they feel safer in, while others leave for Israel.

An opinion poll published in Germany last week showed a similarly complicated picture. The poll showed some old cliches remain among some Germans but “only a small minority really hates Jews (and) anti-Semitism has gone down in recent decades,” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported.

In Germany, Jewish pupils report they are harassed in school, often by classmates of Muslim origin. Meanwhile, in France, Marine Le Pen, who has tried to soften the National Front’s image since taking over in 2011 and mostly criticized Muslims, won four times as many Jewish votes last year as her father — Jean-Marie, a convicted Holocaust denier — got when he ran for president in 2002.

“They think the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Edinger said, referring to Jewish voters. “In the National Front leadership, it’s not kosher to be anti-Semitic.”

(This story was written with support from a Templeton Foundation grant)

These stories are part of a series on science and religion, brought to you with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. (RNS logo, John Templeton Foundation logo}


  1. It is/was the job of Christians to prevent the discrimination against minority populations (religious and otherwise), but we have to admit that (we) Christians are noted for failing at this repeatedly and just about everywhere..

  2. Orban is a hero and he rightly criticized Soros’s subversive activities.

  3. “The religious freedom report followed another Pew survey issued in May that showed about half the continent’s Christians — both observant and nonpracticing — thought Islam was not compatible with European values.”

    ‘Nonpracticing Christian’ strikes me as an oxymoron. To be Christian in any meaningful sense is to practice charity, which includes tolerance for those with different beliefs. The problem isn’t Christian Europe. It’s the fact that secular Europe, like the U.S., is giving in to fear and entrusting it’s future to demagogues who promote scapegoating over complex truth.

  4. You neo nazis have to stick together, I guess. Soros is the new “Rothschild”. People to be invoked for dog whistle paranoid anti Semitic screeds. The triple parens crowd’s go to boogeyman.

  5. People who screech about Nazis calling others paranoid is funny.

  6. Not a denial. You just are a little spineless about it being mentioned.

  7. You should be careful about mentioning “it”. We’re everywhere.

  8. Christioans are only human..and alas it is only human to divide Us vs Them. I’m an atheist and am not immune.

  9. I think practicing in this case means things like church attendance. They can not attend and still be charitable etc.

    “European values” what exactly are European values?

  10. What does Soros have to do with this story?

  11. I know what they meant. My point is that practice is more than church attendance.

    I suspect ‘European values’ in this context are the same as ‘American values.’ It means whatever WE are and THEY aren’t.

  12. I’m a kid of the sixties, raised in relatively liberal church. Religion is supposed to be kind and tolerant. If it is, it’s worth believing in for the kindness it extends. If it goes mean or stupid, it should be opposed.

  13. Some years ago a Supreme Court Justice inserted this phrase into an opinion:

    “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.”

    The meaning in its context was that people are not required to agree to or tolerate behavior that will lead to their own destruction.

    Charity, per se, does not include tolerance for those with different beliefs if those beliefs will lead to the destruction of society. It does not require tolerance for – as an example – a belief system dedicated to violence.

    The influx of north African and Middle Eastern refugees has created a number of problems for Europeans, including a rise in crime, about which they are fairly and genuinely concerned, and characterizing as all about “scapegoating over complex truth” is scapegoating over complex truth.

  14. “My point is that practice is more than church attendance.”

    Agreed…but it is also kind of a subjective call. For Christianity I would say that practice is in general — attendance, giving, volunteer in the church, take the sacraments, regular prayer/Bible study.

    I am saying that from an ex-Baptist view. I know it can differ.

  15. No..instead you provide the evidence to your assertion or it’s simply dismissed as nothing. Cheers

  16. If you refuse to read the story then it’s irrational to complain that you don’t understand comments responding to the story.

  17. This, of course, all comes down to whether or not one believes Islam is inherently violent. I don’t, and I offer as evidence the fact that the vast majority of Muslims don’t kill people. Many of those who emigrated to Europe were fleeing violence in their home countries.

    Violence in the name of religion — whether perpetrated by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or any other group — is always more about politics than faith. There are exhortations to violence in the ancient literature of nearly every major religion. Obviously, some are willing to exploit such passages for their own ends, but reasonable people have moved beyond taking them literally.

    Europe has grown more violent over the years, as has the U.S. and the world. There are myriad reasons why and they are, indeed, complex. But blaming it on Muslims is scapegoating whether we call it that or not, so we might as well call it that.

  18. Okay, let me be even more plain. My point is that Christianity by definition is active. To “practice” one’s faith is to put it into action. A nonpracticing Christian is no Christian at all.

  19. This, of course, all comes down to whether one believes borders mean something, and whether the immigrants make the rules, or the inhabitants of the country who were kind enough to let them enter.

    The fact that immigrants “were fleeing violence in their home countries” for that purpose is not relevant.

    The issue is not Islam or rising violence in Europe. The issue is violent immigrants like Rakhmat Akilov. No one but Rakhmat Akilov cares what his motivation was.

    It’s only scapegoating if the people committing the deeds are natives, not immigrants.

  20. Soros!
    Everyone Drink!

    Still looking for him under your bed. I heard that if a reactionary doesn’t say their prayers at night, George Soros will grab them in their sleep and force them into gay marriages and single payer heath insurance.

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