Boom in Muslim conversions to Christianity in France: How is the Church responding?

Church with crucifix There is exponential growth in conversions of Muslims to Christianity in France. | Credit: Unsplash

At a time when concern is growing about the rise of Islam, which is threatening to become the primary religion in historically Catholic countries such as France, a phenomenon of fundamental importance cannot be ignored: the exponential growth in conversions of Muslims to Christianity.

Marie-Anne and Nicolas are two such converts from Islam who were baptized this year on Easter. Like many other catechumens who have apostatized from their Muslim faith, their journey is as challenging as it is edifying to others.

It was while accompanying her dying husband from Algeria to a hospital in Belgium in 2015 that Marie-Anne (her baptismal name; her civil name will remain anonymous for security reasons) was overwhelmed by the humanity and compassion shown to her by a Catholic nurse — to the point of wanting to “know more” about the figure of Jesus, as she explained in an interview with the National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner.

This thirst for Christ, which became unquenchable over the years, aroused the suspicions of her family back in Algeria. Once widowed and promised to a man who would “reeducate” her in the Muslim faith, she abandoned a prestigious position and her material comforts to flee to France with her two children, where she completed her catechumenate.

It was this same attraction to Christianity’s distinct relationship to charity and the undifferentiated love of neighbor that led Nicolas, a Frenchman who converted to Islam in 2008 at the age of 26 and then immigrated to Indonesia, to embrace the Catholic faith and return to his homeland. His conversion, which began to blossom in 2017 — and culminated in a spiritual experience at the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Paris, praying there beside a statue of St. Thérèse of Lisieux — resulted in a divorce from his Muslim wife and an estrangement from his two children, who remained in Indonesia.

He said that he is far from an isolated case in Indonesia, where he has met many former Muslims who have converted to Christianity without being able to formalize their new religion, as apostasy is prohibited in Islam.

“I have been able to observe that the civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS in particular have provoked a wave of apostasy, often in favor of Christianity,” he told the Register.

This ties in with the major study by missionary David Garrison, featured in his 2014 book “A Wind in the House of Islam.” He estimates that between 2 million and 7 million Muslims have converted to Christianity worldwide over the past two decades, calling this movement “the greatest turning of Muslims to Christ in history.”

Welcoming the new converts

In the same way as local Churches in Europe are beginning to recognize the need to respond appropriately to young people’s return to Catholicism through traditionalist and charismatic communities, they are also beginning to consider how to welcome the numerous conversions from Islam. 

The Archdiocese of Paris in 2020 set up a pastoral service, Ananie, designed to direct new converts from Islam to parishes suited to their needs and to train priests and the faithful to welcome them as best they can.

Father Ramzi Saadé, who leads the Ananie service in Paris, estimates that 10% to 20% of those who will be baptized at Easter in the capital’s archdiocese are converts from Islam. He points out that while the absence of official figures prevents a precise assessment, it is definitely an exponential phenomenon that he is witnessing on the ground.

“Some 50 people who have passed through Ananie will be baptized between this year and next year in the Paris Archdiocese, but I’ve heard of many other catechumens from Islam with whom I’m not in contact,” he told the Register.

This upsurge in baptisms of converts from Islam is part of a general trend of a sharp rise in baptisms of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 in France, with an increase of the number of new catechumens for 2024 exceeding 30%, while it was 28% in 2023.

Amid the turmoil of their unforeseen conversion, Marie-Anne and Nicolas also faced the challenge of integrating into their new Catholic communities.

The Ananie network played a crucial role in this process, offering these new converts a valuable anchor thanks to the weekly Wednesday Mass followed by a time of study and friendly dialogue between former Muslims.

“I had felt a kind of aloofness in my new parish because of my past,” Nicolas remembered. “Although I’m French by birth, it took a long time for me to feel integrated; I felt very isolated, and meeting the Ananie network did me a lot of good.”

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Avoiding the wrong approach

It was precisely to compensate for the lack of preparation in many Catholic parishes for welcoming converts from Islam that the Ananie service came into being at the request of Saadé to then-Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris. A Maronite Christian originally from Lebanon, he was ordained in 2018 a priest in the Maronite Church, which is in communion with Rome, and brings invaluable field experience to the project. 

In addition to his mission of welcoming new converts and directing them to suitable parishes, he also offers, via the network’s website, “vademecums” (“handbooks”) for parishes and those accompanying catechumenates as well as training videos. 

“I realized that many new converts from Islam had left the Catholic Church, not because the faithful were unkind to them, but because they often want to show themselves so favorable to Islam that they come to explain that we worship the same God and that, in the end, there’s no need to become a Christian to access salvation,” said Saadé, stressing that this misguided approach concerned both clergymen and laypeople.

“Yet many of those who join Christ do so at the risk of their lives: Some have left their countries, have been rejected by their families; they are in real danger — the last thing they need is to be sent back to their Muslim identity.”

In his view, the interreligious dialogue implemented by Church authorities over the past decades, which has been very beneficial for the mutual understanding of cultures and peoples, can also sometimes be a source of misunderstandings about the duty of Christians in the West to announce.

“Many people of Islamic origin arriving in a parish to become Christians are often welcomed in a way unsuited to their situations, as if they were still Muslim when in fact they are no longer,” he continued.

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Overcoming the fear of offending

According to the Maronite priest, the most urgent thing for the Church hierarchy today — especially in Europe, where immigration from Muslim countries is constantly on the rise — is to clarify its position on welcoming new converts. 

“We must not be afraid to assert that the Church is there to baptize those who wish to be baptized, at the end of a long path of freedom that is the catechumenate, and to raise issues relating to freedom of conscience with Muslim leaders, asking them concretely what can be done at the level of education and families to prevent the pressures and reprisals experienced by those who encounter Christ and want to follow him,” Saadé added. 

He also pointed out that the search for consensual dialogue is a typically Western approach, not often understood by Eastern Arabic culture, where tension is synonymous with authentic dialogue, the necessary foundation for constructive exchange. 

“If we Christians are ashamed of our identity, we will disappear in the face of an expansionist Islam in the West that forces us to question ourselves,” he said.

At the same time, Saadé noted that, transcending the shortcomings and imperfections of human situations, Jesus himself never fails to intervene to touch hearts. 

And, indeed, this has been the experience of both Nicolas and Marie-Anne.

As he prepared to be received into the Catholic Church on March 31, Nicolas had the joy of seeing his father, a lifelong atheist, suddenly and inexplicably cured of cancer after asking for the intercession of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. His father promised to attend his baptism and support him on his journey of faith. In Indonesia, his children have already located a Catholic church where he can attend Mass during his next visit. 

Marie-Anne’s children, who had clung to their Muslim identity since arriving in France, have nevertheless decided to accompany their mother to the baptistery dressed in white and to take catechism classes to better join her in what she is experiencing in her faith journey. 

“I’ve always felt guilty about cutting my children off from my family; it’s been very hard on them, but my son, who is now 14, recently pointed out to me that, in Algeria, after their father’s death, I was more isolated than ever,” Marie-Anne said with emotion. “With very wise words, he asked me what a family was to me and reminded me that my new spiritual family, through the love and care with which it surrounds the three of us, had long ago transcended blood ties. I know that the Lord’s grace also works in their hearts, and nothing could comfort me more as I prepare to enter a new life through my baptism.”

This article was originally published in the National Catholic Register on March 29, 2024, and has been adapted for CNA.

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