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Panel discusses religion in Ireland

Katie Peralta | Thursday, October 18, 2007

Although Ireland has seen an influx of different religions in recent decades, a panel discussion Wednesday, featuring three representatives from different faiths, said the predominantly Catholic nation has allowed them all to exist peacefully with little interference from the government or Roman Catholic Church.

Patsy McGarry, religious affairs correspondent for the Irish Times in Dublin, said a religious revolution is taking place in Ireland.

“It could be said that the long [religious] tradition of 19th-century Ireland is finally thawing and allowing an emergence of new religions,” he said. “This is something of a convenient truth for people of other religions because it is a way of liberating them.”

Echoing the current national opinion of freedom of religion in Ireland, McGarry quoted Irish president Mary McAleese saying, “We don’t enforce religion on anybody. We had our day with that.”

McGarry said the Irish government of Ireland is an “aggressively secular” institution and works to enforce the separation of church and state.

It is also important, McGarry said, to be sensitive to those who don’t assign themselves to a particular faith. The number of people who don’t consider themselves bound to any religion has risen in recent years by as much as 34 percent, according to one recent national census, he said, including many people of younger generations.

The arrival of thousands of immigrants to the country, McGarry said, necessitates freedom of religion and ongoing dialogue between different faiths.

“Fifteen percent of the Irish population is comprised of foreign nationals,” McGarry said, “and they practice religions ranging from Islam to Judaism to Methodism.”

Tolerance of different religions is widespread among the Irish, McGarry said, as the Irish people tend to remember the plight of their ancestors who emigrated and endured racism when they arrived in America.

One such religious group that enjoys solidarity in Ireland is the Orthodox Catholic Church, which came from the eastern United Kingdom and Russia.

Supporting the popularly held belief that Ireland is a Catholic nation, McGarry said there are roughly 3.7 million Catholics among Ireland’s 4.2 million total people. Ninety-two percent of these Catholics, he said, are Irish nationals. Students of all faiths are accepted into the Catholic schools that are commonplace in urban Ireland.

The growth of other religions is also evident in the education system, McGarry said. In the past year, Ireland has seen 20 new multicultural schools, five new Muslim schools and only two new Catholic schools.

“All faith groups seem to want their own schools,” he said.

Islam, the third-largest religion in Ireland, has more believers than some Christian groups and has grown fourfold in recent years. Ali Selim, secretary of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, said Muslims in Ireland currently number around 40,000 and have contributed greatly to its current interfaith dialogue.

Selim, an Egyptian native, said Muslim migration has been welcomed at various levels.

“Muslims in Ireland have not been exposed to an extreme amount of racism,” Selim said. “There seems to be a huge amount of commonalities between Muslim immigrants and Irish nationals. They share a sense of family.”

Emphasizing the belief of universal equality, Selim said people cannot be divided into “we” and “they” mentalities.

“‘We’ includes everyone who lives in Ireland regardless of religion,” Selim said. “Muslim presence in Ireland can be traced back to the 1950s with a student influx making up a large percentage [of the Muslim population].”

African Pentecostals are erecting new schools and churches for incoming immigrants to Ireland, said Abel Ugba, a Nigerian native of the University of East London.

“Most African immigrants came to Ireland seeking asylum,” Ugba said, adding that the next most popular reasons for migration are study and work. The sudden increase in Africans surprised the Irish, Ugba said.

“You have to remember Ireland’s proximity to the United Kingdom, which has large numbers of Africans,” he said.

African Pentecostal immigrants, like their Muslim counterparts, have contributed greatly to the multiculturalism of Ireland, making it a diverse nation.

“There are between 30,000 and 35,000 Africans in Ireland, and their largest church is the Redeemed Christian Church of God,” Ugba said.

Irish people on the whole have been very accepting of African migrants.

“It is a very complex relationship,” Ugba said.

Because Pentecostals do not drink or swear, many saw them as different from the Irish, but the two groups have, he said, “created a parallel social and cultural universe,” where they peacefully exist.

“[The Pentecostal churches of Africans] give us a voice and visibility. They provide solidarity and a safe place [for immigrants],” Ugba said.

As part of the conference titled “Race and Immigration in the New Ireland,” the panel, titled “Religion in the New Ireland,” took place in the McKenna Hall auditorium and was moderated by Notre Dame professor Patrick Gaffney.