The Washington Post runs a piece on how Muslim students—a large percentage of them Saudi—are finding welcome at Catholic universities in the US. American Catholic schools, which certainly have a focus on Catholic theology, have tended to welcome students of other faiths, from elementary schools on up, generally for the quality of the education. Catholic schools, too, tend not to be much interested in proselytizing their students but would rather enhance the faith of their Catholic students. As the article points out, as a religiously based institution, Catholic universities are also more in line with Muslim concepts of morality.
I wonder, too, if the selection of religiously-based universities for Saudi students isn’t also part of King Abdullah’s efforts toward raising the level of religious tolerance in Saudi society. When these students go home (nearly all Saudi students do go home at the end of their studies), they are going to serve as first hand witnesses that their faith is not being demonized. Even more, that their differences in belief are being accommodated without rancor.
On a quick break between classes last week, Reef Al-Shabnan slipped into an empty room at Catholic University to start her daily prayers to Allah.
In one corner was a life-size painting of Jesus carrying the cross. In another, the portrait of a late priest and theologian looked on. And high above the room hung a small wooden crucifix.
This was not, Shabnan acknowledged, the ideal space for a Muslim to pray in. After her more than two years on campus, though, it has become routine and sacred in its own way. You can find Allah anywhere, the 19-year-old from Saudi Arabia said, even at the flagship university of the U.S. Catholic world.
… The largest group of international students by far now comes from Saudi Arabia.
Muslim students say they enroll at Catholic schools for many of the same reasons as their classmates: attractive campuses, appealing professors and academic programs that fit their interests. But there is also a spiritual attraction to the values that overlap the two faiths.
“Because it is an overtly religious place, it’s not strange or weird to care about your religion here, to pray and make God a priority,” said Shabnan, a political science major who often covers her head with a pale beige scarf. “They have the same values we do.”