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'Some converts are so keen to prove their credentials that they are attracted to the most extreme expressions of their new faith'
'bulldozers reduced the church to rubble. His experiences as a server were now just a memory. He would never feel happy in the Church again' When George was eight years old he would leave the house
early on Sunday mornings. If he was running late, he slipped out the door and ran along his Glasgow street to St Joseph's Catholic church.
He would arrive, out of breath, at the vestry, where the priest was nervously adjusting his robes for the first Mass of the day.
George has vivid memo ries of stand ing at the altar and looking out over row upon row of faces in the nave. His favourite times of the year were the great feasts of the Church.
During the Masses of Lent, Easter a n d
Christmas, he had the feeling he was standing in the presence of God. "It had a huge bearing on my life," he recalls, decades later. "It instilled in me a deep belief in God," Nowadays George prefers to be called by his Arabic name, Abdul Wajid. It means -servant of the rich one" and he chose it after his conversion to Islam last year.
Abdul Wajid is one of the hundreds of British people who have made the journey from Catholicism to Islam over the past decade. Figures are difficult to come by, but Rabbi Jonathan Remain, author of a groundbreaking study on conversion, Your God Shall Be My God, says Islam is one of the major growth religions in Britain and is drawing its converts mainly from the Catholic Church and the Anglican church. So what is it that leads committed young Catholics to embrace the Islamic faith? And is there anything the Church can do to keep them in the fold?
Abdul Wajid traces his break with the Church back to his late teens. When the Archdiocese of Glasgow had decided that St Joseph's was no longer a viable parish, bulldozers moved in and reduced the church to rubble. Abdul Wajid says the destruction of the church made him feel disorientated. His experiences as a server were now just a memory. He would never feel happy in the Church again.
He was asked to continue serving at another local church, but he felt uncomfortable moving to a new parish after a decade at St Joseph's. At the same time, he was experiencing all the distrac tions and temptations of teenage life. His devout family encouraged him to keep going to Mass. He began to go at different times to them and, eventually, did not go at all.
He left school, got a job, got married and had children. But there was something missing from his life, that "God-shaped hole" left vacant since his teens. One day, he began to talking to a colleague, Tariq, about the purpose of life. Tariq, a committed Muslim, spoke eloquently about his faith. He gave George some tapes by the popular American imam (and former Greek Orthodox Christian) Sheikh Hamza Yusuf.
On a holiday trip to his mother-in-law in England. George packed a biography of the Prophet Muhammad. "The crucial point was just reading about this man's life 1,400 years ago," he explains over the phone from his home in Glasgow. "When I came back [to Glasgow], three days later, I went to a mosque. At the mosque that day, I said: la ilaha ill-Ilah, Muhammadun Rasulu-illah [hats] [There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet]: I didn't start praying five times day until six months after I made my profession."
George gradually made other far-reaching changes to his life. In addition to tak ing on a new name, he gave up drinking alcohol, eating pork and gambling. He now tries to follow Islamic dietary law, which means he cannot eat a sweet without first checking to see whether it contains gelatine.
George's conversion has had a profound impact on his family life. His wife, who is from Cameroon, finds it difficult to accept her husband's decision. "My wife tells me to be a Christian and 'do the white religion'. Her sister says that's so stereotypical. [My wife] has softened her heart recently, but there was open animosity at the beginning, because I was talking about Islam all the time, but I wasn't practising it. Now I don't talk to her about it. I just go home and my children see me pray. I my to stick to the fundamentals."
Batool al-Toma grew up in .a devout Irish Catholic family. Nowadays she works at the New Muslim Project in Leicester, offering advice and support to new converts to Islam. She says that although there is no single reason why Catholics convert to Islam, many converts follow a similar path to their new faith.
"In their teenage years and early twenties, they tend to fall away from their church and their faith," she explains. "It's only in later years that they begin to feel the need for a framework in which to live their lives. They feel they have an ethical and moral legacy from their parents. Then they go through a period of searching. They explore very deeply and very serious a number of the faiths that we experience in Britain."
This is what she calls the "floating period", when seekers search to for an adult replacement for their lost childhood faith. Some converts encounter Islam through chance meetings, others through travels in Muslim countries, academic research, or private reading. Months, or years, later, they reach the "cut-off point", where they decisively embrace Islam.
Batool al-Toma says she began to feel doubts about her faith in her teenage years, but continued to practise Catholicism, while exploring other religions. "I wanted to meet people of other faiths, so that I could argue myself back into my own faith. But that didn't happen," she explains. She converted to Islam in the early Eighties and took on her Arabic name, which is short for "Mary the Virgin who constantly worships God". She felt that the name, an Islamic title of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was a bridge between her old faith and the new.
Both Baton' alToma and Abdul Wajid embraced a moderate form of Islam. But other Catholics are drawn to the radical fringes of Islam. The most infamous example is John Walker Lind, the "American Taliban", who made headlines around when he emerged bewil
dered, but alive, from the ruins of Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan.
He was raised a Catholic in the lush Californian suburb of Birkenstock. At the age of 16, he read the autobiography of Malcolm X and began attending a mosque. A few years later, he travelled to Pakistan, where he was recruited by the Taliban. In October, the 21-year-old was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
Richard Belmer is currently languishing in America's notorious prison camp for terrorist suspects, Guantanamo Bay. The 23year-old reportedly attended St George's Catholic secondary school in north west London. He converted to Islam three years ago and went to Pakistan to study his new faith. He was arrested there last February.
According to Rabbi Jonathan Romain, both Walker and Belmer were driven by the zeal of the convert to embrace Islamic radicalism. "Some converts assimilate into the mainstream of their faith," he says. "But there are some who are either so fervent in their discovery of the 'new truth' or who are so keen to prove their new credentials that they are attracted to the most extreme expressions of their new faith."
Converts to moderate forms of Islam feel a volatile mixture of emotions towards the Church they have left. At first, they may feel a certain pain and hostility. But this can give way to a feeling of respect and gratitude. "During the early stages of the conversion," says Batool al-Toma, " I would have looked very negatively at my Catholic past. But as I've matured in my faith, I've realised that that's not true.
"I look back on Catholicism — and you have to appreciate I came from Ireland — and I have gone through various issues relating to my family, deaths, births, marriages, and I have found the Church being very supportive, very kind and understanding."
Abdul Wajid, a relatively new convert, says he is still sorting through his feelings about the Church; but he has already discovered that Muslims and Catholics have many things in common. "I want to see Muslims and Catholics standing togeth
er," he says. "1 am steeped in the ways of Catholicism and I know that many people, including my grandparents, dedicate themselves to God through the Catholic Church."
Batool al-Toma believes that if the Church wishes to prevent its members embracing other faiths then it has to become more attuned to the needs of individual Catholics. It must show greater concern and sympathy for people who are struggling with doubts. "The Church often overlooks the need among its individual members for support," she says.
Catholic families, too, need to show sensitivity when members slip away from the Church and explore Islam. She advises families to learn about Islam and to reflect on the beliefs
'the Church does not need to pour its energies into competing with Islam, but into bringing to maturity those souls it has already won' common to Muslims and Catholics. "I would like to hope that we would stop looking at what divides us, but rather look at what unites us and celebrate this," he says. "That is my message to the families."
The growing number of Catholic converts to Islam is a profound challenge to the Church in this country. Cradle Catholics who have drifted away from the Church are drawn to the bold and simple message of Islam.
By the time Catholics convert to Islam, they have already left the Church, spiritually, far behind them. So the Church does not need to pour its energies into competing with Islam for souls, but into bringing to maturity those souls it has already won.
Your God Shall Be My God by Rabbi Jonathan Romain is available from SCM. prired £13.95.
Understanding My Muslim Neighbour: Some Questions and Answers by Michael Nazir-Ali with Christopher Stone, Canterbury Press, 0.99