Maya Taha / Gavel Media

Professor Laurie Johnston Discusses Muslim Students in Catholic Schools

The Boston College Center for Human Rights and International Justice (CHRIJ) invited Laurie Johnston, Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Emmanuel College and a Visiting Professor for International Studies at BC, to speak about religious freedom in the context of Catholics and Muslims in Belgium on Thursday

Johnston, who specializes in Christian social ethics, spoke about her experiences engaging with educators and school officials in Belgium, where she studied religious liberty and the relationship between the Catholic and Muslim communities.

Johnston described the country as a “really interesting laboratory for looking at this kind of question” due to its “sociologically bizarre” nature.The country is overwhelmingly secular, yet 70% of children, including those belonging to the country’s sizeable Muslim minority population, attend state-funded Catholic schools.

“In some of these neighborhoods, you have a Catholic school that is 80, 90, even 100% Muslim," said Johnson. 

As part of her research, Johnston surveyed a sample of Catholic educators and school officials in Belgium regarding their attitudes and approaches to interfaith relations in their schools.

When asked about the allowances they make for Muslim students so that they can fulfill their daily prayer obligations, one school official responded that “there are no breaks for students to smoke and no breaks for students to pray.”

Another school stated that accommodating their Muslim students’ prayer lives was “none of [their] business,” expressing shockingly dismissive attitudes towards the spiritual needs of their students.

Johnston identified, however, that “Jesuit schools were exceptions to some of these trends.”

In response to the disparaging comments made by other school officials, one Jesuit institution affirmed that they “believe in the cura personalis” and that “when no one in the world prays, it is a disaster for the world.”

Unfortunately, schools that have attempted to accommodate their Muslim students have often received significant backlash. In one incident, the Islamic holiday Eid coincidentally fell on the same day that classes started in Belgium, prompting the principal of one Catholic school, whose student body was 30% Muslim, to postpone the start of classes. However, this gesture received substantial criticism from right-wing elements of Belgian society, who went so far as to send the principal hate mail and death threats.

One particular topic that underscores the tension in Belgium is the question of whether Muslim girls should be allowed to wear veils in school. Although there is no national law against it, most schools prohibit the practice.

When one official at a Catholic institution was questioned about the issue, she responded that the school “has a long tradition of supporting greater opportunity for women, so [they] can’t permit the veil because it is a sign of oppression." Johnston noted the irony of this position, given that many veiled nuns work at the school.

While the Belgian school system often falls short in the way they treat their Muslim students, there are signs of progress. Flanders, the Dutch speaking region of Belgium, has recently started adopting the “dialogue-school” model, seeking to serve Muslim students by promoting a “deeper and more mature understanding of their own beliefs through dialogue.”

Additionally, there are many Catholic educators in Belgium looking to reach out to their Muslim students. “The message of the gospel is to attend to the marginalized in society,” one teacher commented.

Ignoring criticism, another teacher pointed out that the presence of Muslim students engenders genuine interfaith dialogue that “challenges Catholic schools to think more carefully and more authentically about what they’re doing” and to reckon with their own identity in a country that is growing increasingly secular and pluralist.