The transition to more religiously and ethnically diverse societies is rarely a smooth one. An economic downturn and heightened security fears have made it particularly challenging for countries throughout Europe.

Amid the turmoil, many governments have forgone efforts at social integration in favor of legislation restricting religious freedom. But research indicates such efforts only increase conflict.

We hope the following overview by Italian journalist Elisa Di Benedetto and the accompanying links to resources, books and articles will contribute to your understanding of the critical issue of religion and immigration in Europe.

L'immigrazione e il cambiamento del paesaggio religioso in Europa

A babel of languages – Italian, Arabic, Farsi, English, Bulgarian, Kurdish – welcomes evening passengers outside the Ostiense Train Station in Rome.

The parking area in front is a gathering place for refugees and asylum seekers, as well as for homeless Italian and European citizens.

Catholic charitable organizations deliver food and clothes to the people in need, who queue in the evenings for a hot meal. On Wednesdays, area Pentecostals approach new immigrants. Instead of food, they bring along guitars, leaflets and copies of the Bible translated into Arabic, Farsi and English.

Their goal: Feeding those people’s souls with spiritual food, so that they can meet Jesus, says evangelist Walter Patt of the nearby Apostolic Church, who has worked with immigrants for 15 years. The scene outside Ostiense station offers one portrait of an evolving European religious landscape. Waves of immigrants with strong religious faith and the new religious freedom following the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe are reviving religion throughout the continent.

Due donne con il capo coperto che parlano fuori da un ingresso della metropolitana di Londra in preda ai brividi
By CGP Grey from London, United Kingdom (October 4th Tube Strike — Meeting Friends) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A region once thought to be on an inexorable march toward secularism is becoming increasingly religiously vibrant and diverse. While a large number of immigrants are Muslims, a wide variety of other religious groups are also making inroads.

For example, in Norway, migration from Poland and other nations has helped fuel a five-fold increase in the Catholic population – from 40,000 to 200,000 – since 1996.

In Rome, the “eternal city” that is home to the Vatican, the biggest mosque in Europe will soon be joined by the largest temple built by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of Italy.

And these changes are expected to continue. Immigrants have a higher fertility rate and non-European immigrants tend to be more religious than the host population and more likely to retain their religiosity, note researchers from the University of London and the World Population Program.

The combination of these factors – religiosity, fertility and religious retention – will play a crucial role in reshaping the religious landscape in Europe, which may see a de-secularization in Western Europe by the end of this century.

The transition, however, has not been an easy one, as both secular and majority faith groups in many nations have forgone efforts at social integration in favor of legislation restricting religious freedom. Add anti-immigrant sentiment in a time of economic uncertainty, and the volatile mix of religion and immigration is causing turmoil in the public and private lives of Europeans.

Consider these cases:

  • France: Legislating what proponents called the nation’s secular values, France passed a law in 2010 banning full-face veils, a form of clothing some Muslim women see as a requirement of their faith. The ban took effect in 2011, while religious clothing and symbols at state schools had already been banned in 2004.
  • Switzerland: In 2009, the Swiss approved a national ban on the construction of new minarets, the prayer towers above mosques. In 2013, nearly two-thirds of voters in Ticino canton approved a ban on full-face veils in public areas.
  • Austria: The government recently proposed a series of changes to the “Islamgesetz” (Law on Islam), which was first introduced in 1912. The draft bill would prohibit foreign funding for Islamic organizations, oblige Islamic communities to adopt a standardized German translation of the Quran and introduces new rules for the employment of clerics.
  • Russia: In Russia and some other countries in the former Soviet bloc such as Belarus, laws have been passed favoring the majority Orthodox Church, and imposing restrictions on minority religious groups in areas from evangelization to the ability to build or rent houses of worship.
  • Italy: Court cases challenging the right to display crucifixes in public schools have generated continuing controversy. Polls showed as many as 85 percent of Italians opposed a European court ruling saying crucifixes in schools violated the rights of nonbelievers, and the upshot was more crucifixes were placed in schools as symbols of the nation’s heritage. Several towns have local bans on full-face-covering veils and mayors of the anti-immigrant Northern League banned Islamic swimsuits.

What further complicates issues relating to faith and immigration is the long recession that has created high unemployment rates throughout Europe. In Greece, the ultranationalist party Golden Dawn has mined economic and immigration concerns along with anti-Muslim rhetoric to win its first seats in the European Parliament and become its nation’s third leading party.

Also adding to the tension are security concerns. The growth of the Islamic State rekindled the fears of the types of domestic terrorism Western Europe experienced with the suicide attacks in Madrid and in London in 2004 and 2005. There are concerns that the phenomenon of foreign fighters – by some estimates 20 percent of the 16,000 Muslims who joined the conflict in Syria were recruited in the European Union – will provide a network and breeding ground for violent acts on the continent.

Even in relatively tolerant Germany, a group calling itself Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West has been drawing increasing numbers to anti-immigrant rallies where protesters shout slogans such as We are the people and carry signs reading For the preservation of our culture.

Yet research suggests restricting freedom is not the answer.

Take away religious freedoms, and conflict is likely to increase, Brian Grim of the Pew Research Center and Roger Finke of Pennsylvania State University pointed out in their comprehensive study of global religious persecution. Religious freedom serves to reduce conflict, Grim and Finke state, in part by decreasing public tolerance for vigilantism against less popular groups and guarding against the tyranny of the majority. Minority religious groups also have fewer grievances that potentially fuel violence.

What does seem to hold more promise are efforts at social integration.

A University of Munster study of five Western European nations found that having personal contact with Muslims was strongly related to favorable attitudes toward Islam in every country. For example, in the former West Germany, 38 percent of respondents who reported a lot of contact with Muslims reported very positive attitudes; only 1 percent of respondents who had no contact held very positive attitudes toward Muslims.

In the European study, however, less than 10 percent of the respondents said they had a lot of contact with Muslims.

One need not look past the Ostiense station, built in 1938 by fascist leader Benito Mussolini to welcome Adolf Hitler to Italy, for a reminder of the capacity for inhumanity possible when nationalist and ethnic ideology stoked by the fires of prejudice and economic fears is turned against minority populations.

Today, it is here in this melting pot and similar areas across the continent that a new Europe will be forged amid the dynamic forces of increasing religious and ethnic diversity.

Muslims from northern and Western Africa and Asia, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians emigrating from the Global South, resurgent Eastern Orthodox churches freed from repression, and even U.S.-born movements such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses all will play a part.

As will individuals such as Albert, a pseudonym for an Afghan immigrant who has made a new life here. Having been welcomed and cared for by religious groups outside Ostiense seven years ago, he converted to Christianity and now spends many of his evenings welcoming the newest immigrants.

Albert says he cannot share his real name for fear his relatives in Afghanistan would be persecuted because of his conversion. He speaks about his decision only with his closest friends.

My friends respect my choice, others wouldn’t understand and my life would be in danger, here in Italy, as well.

Should the Migration Service not extend his residence permit, he would have to leave Europe and consider returning to Afghanistan, and keeping his religion secret or going back to Islam.

It is a choice Albert hopes he never has to make. Italy is now his home.


  • Profili nazionali ARDA: Visualizza le informazioni religiose, demografiche e socio-economiche di tutte le nazioni a maggioranza musulmana con una popolazione superiore ai 2 milioni di abitanti. Schede speciali per ogni Paese consentono inoltre di misurare la libertà religiosa nella nazione selezionata e di leggere le parti principali della sua Costituzione che fanno riferimento alla religione.
  • ARDA Confronta le nazioni: Confrontate misure dettagliate su argomenti che vanno dalla libertà religiosa alla demografia religiosa per un massimo di otto nazioni.
  • Eurostat: Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, provides data on migrant integration-social inclusion and migration and asylum, as well as population statistics. It also provides data on population projections and the enforcement of immigration legislation.
  • Migration Policy Centre – European University Institute: The Migration Policy Centre website gives access to the center’s publications in various research areas, including observations on migration in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, in the post-Soviet space and India to European Union migration.
  • Religion sites: News about the Catholic Church can be found at the official website of La Santa Sede.The Conference of European Churches is a fellowship of some 120 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic Churches along with 40 organizations in partnership from all countries on the continent. News from The Russian Orthodox Church can be found at this official site. The European Jewish Congress provides news and information on Jewish communities.
  • EUROEL - Dati sociologici e giuridici sulle religioni in Europa: The website provides information on the social and legal status of religion in European nations. For each country, the website presents social and religious data, with information on the principal religions and denominations, religious demography and the legal status of religions. Informare: L'associazione indipendente con sede presso la London School of Economics fornisce informazioni sui nuovi movimenti religiosi.