More Muslim students at CUA

Before we dive into the actual 12 days of Christmas -- don't forget to send URLs of any mainstream coverage -- let's look at another really interesting story from a big week for religion news in the Washington Post. The headline was crisp and to the point, if somewhat dry for such an interesting piece:

Enrollment of Muslim students is growing at Catholic colleges in U.S.

With that opener, you can see why my brain immediately linked that headline to one more than a year ago in Christianity Today, which ran atop a feature story that focused on some interesting enrollment numbers at Houston Baptist University. (That piece, I should note, was co-written by a close friend of mine, Olivet Nazarene University Provost Gregg Chenoweth. Yes, there is a Christian campus with a journalist as provost.) The headline:

Where Jerusalem and Mecca Meet

One Baptist college's social (and evangelistic) experiment in having Muslim students on campus

Now, that content of that headline immediately concedes a major difference in these two types of campuses and, thus, these two stories. Islam is an evangelistic faith and so is Christianity, especially when one is talking about Baptists in Texas. A crucial question: Is American Catholicism, especially in academic contexts, still an evangelistic faith? More on that issue later on.

Here is the anecdote that opens the Post piece, which flows smoothly into the well-stated money quotes:

On a quick break between classes last week, Reef Al-Shabnan slipped into an empty room at Catholic University to start her daily prayers to Allah.

In one corner was a life-size painting of Jesus carrying the cross. In another, the portrait of a late priest and theologian looked on. And high above the room hung a small wooden crucifix.

This was not, Shabnan acknowledged, the ideal space for a Muslim to pray in. After her more than two years on campus, though, it has become routine and sacred in its own way. You can find Allah anywhere, the 19-year-old from Saudi Arabia said, even at the flagship university of the U.S. Catholic world.

The use of the word "Allah" in place of "God" is interesting, since many journalists are now striving to avoid it. However, it fits well here -- especially since it contrasts with the images of Jesus, which brings the heresy of the Trinity (from a Muslim point of view) into the same context. Now on to the paragraphs that state the thesis:

In the past few years, enrollment of Muslim students such as Shabnan has spiked at Catholic campuses across the country. Last year, Catholic colleges had an even higher percentage of Muslim students than the average four-year institution in the United States, according to the Higher Education Research Institute. The influx has astonished and sometimes befuddled administrators. Some Catholic campuses are creating prayer rooms for new Muslim students and hiring Islamic chaplains to minister to them. Others are unsure how to adapt.

One of the sharpest increases in Muslims students has been at Catholic University in Northeast Washington. In the past five years, as the number of self-identified Catholics on the campus has decreased, the number of Muslims has more than doubled, from 41 in 2006 to 91 this fall. The largest group of international students by far now comes from Saudi Arabia.

Muslim students say they enroll at Catholic schools for many of the same reasons as their classmates: attractive campuses, appealing professors and academic programs that fit their interests. But there is also a spiritual attraction to the values that overlap the two faiths.

"Because it is an overtly religious place, it's not strange or weird to care about your religion here, to pray and make God a priority," said Shabnan, a political science major who often covers her head with a pale beige scarf. "They have the same values we do."

So there are dorms for men and then for women. It is common for believers to fast and pray. There is an emphasis reserving sex for marriage, with marriage defined as the union of a man and a woman.

But there are questions. Do Muslim men shake hands or even hug other students, especially young women? Do you eat cafeteria meals that are not halal? How do you handle required Bible and church history classes? What if a professor opens class with a prayer? Is it possible to have a Muslim student association at a Catholic school? Well, is it possible to have a Christian student association at a Muslim school in, let's say, Saudi Arabia?

The Post raises these issues, but does not mention issues linked to evangelism by believers in either faith. The more conservative Catholic University of America is, however contrasted briefly with another local institution that the newspaper notes is more open-minded on a host of subjects:

Many other Catholic schools with rising numbers of Muslim students have set up prayer rooms and formed Muslim student associations. Georgetown University, whose Muslim student numbers have also been climbing, has a prayer room, student association and an entire center devoted to Muslim-Christian understanding, and the school hired a full-time Muslim chaplain in 1999. Catholic administrators at colleges that have added similar features say they haven't perceived the efforts as a challenge to their religious identity.

The story then skates bypasses another relevant issue. Do practicing, devout Muslims feel as comfortable on Catholic campuses that are more progressive -- or even provocative -- when it comes to moral issues? Have Muslim parents researched the differences between the Catholicism of Georgetown versus the more traditional faith and student-life code found at CUA?

An interesting question: How many Muslims live in CUA dorms? How many live in Georgetown dorms?

I ask those particular questions after talking with a Muslim student or two at Houston Baptist a few years ago when I visited that very conservative campus.

Yes, the Muslim students knew about the required chapel services, the Bible classes and the fact that some students might take a shot or two at converting them.

As a rule, other Muslim students knew all of that coming in, but were confident enough in their beliefs to enroll. Besides, they told me, the HBU students were polite and respectful. It was easier to face one or two evangelistic students than to face hundreds of secularized students who mocked their core values, especially on subjects as personal as marriage and family. As one student told me, the more morally conservative the Muslim, the more likely they were to feel at home at Houston Baptist, as opposed to other local options.

So the Post story opened an interesting door, especially with its focus on Catholic University. There are other interesting stories behind that same interfaith door, stories that affect a wide range of believers -- Muslims, Catholics, Baptists, etc. -- in a number of different settings. Proceed.

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