Belgium’s Justice Minister has been criticised after claiming the number of practicing Muslims would “very soon” overtake the number of practising Christians in Europe.
Speaking in a question and answer session at a parliamentary committee, Koen Geens said: “In Europe, very shortly we’re going to have more practising Muslims than practising Christians.”
His comments have been dismissed as “misleading and irresponsible” by one of the UK’s leading anti-Islamophobia charities.
Mr Geens’ did not support his claim with evidence but his remarks were quickly seized upon by far-right groups as proof of the creeping “Islamification” of Europe.
However, Mr Geens’ motivation in making the comments appeared to be to highlight the general shift towards secularism on the continent.
“That is not because there are too many Muslims; it is because Christians are generally less practising,” he said.
“We will soon have in Belgium more active practitioners of Islam than of the Catholic faith, simply because Catholics don’t practice anymore.
“It’s not a problem,” Mr Geens said, “I am only saying, and Europe must realise, because it is the reality.”
His words were met with dismay by Fiyaz Mughal OBE, director of Tell Mama, a group which monitors anti-Muslim hatred.
“The comments by the Belgian Justice Minister, Koen Geens, are not only misleading, they are irresponsible, given his position and given the fact that he is the Justice Minister in charge of a core ministry,” Mr Mughal told The Independent.
“He needs to understand that statements like this merely add fuel to the far right and to tensions.”
However, a spokesperson for Mr Geens told The Independent: “Minister Koen Geens did not make an anti-Muslim statement. He just pointed out that in the future, Europe will have more practising Muslims than practising Catholics.
“Not more or less. The Justice Minister is responsible for the religions in Belgium and has a good relationship with all recognised religions in the country, including Muslims.
“Mr Geens regularly meets with the EMB (Muslim Executive of Belgium) and took legislative initiative to contribute funding to professionalize the organisation. On top of that, 80 Imams will be appointed by the EMB, and it receives extra funding for this from the Justice department.”
Belgium has been struggling with problems around radicalism and its capital, Brussels, was subject to bombings in March, for which extremist group Isis claimed responsibility.
Terror attacks and the subsequent investigation of Islamist terror cells has often led police to the city’s suburb of Molenbeek, sparked a national debate around the integration of ethnic and religious minorities in the country.
Christianity is widely perceived to have been in decline in Europe for many years, as fewer people identify as religious.
Catholic journalist Damian Thompson of The Spectator previously bemoaned the loss of millions of worshippers and predicted that “Anglicanism will disappear from Britain in 2033” if British Social Attitude survey trends continue.
The number of Roman Catholics has also fallen in the UK, dropping from 10 per cent of the population to eight per cent between 1983 and 2014, according to the attitude surveys.
However, Christianity has seen large gains in Asia and remains the world’s most prevalent religion.
A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found that Islam was likely to become more prevalent worldwide due to a youthful population and high fertility rates, catching up with Christianity by around 2050.