What I found surprising (and very refreshing) is they spoke openly about converting Muslims to Christianity, which is a death sentence in the Islamic world.

(Reuters) – A drive to rekindle Roman Catholicism’s missionary zeal is struggling to counter the challenge of Islam, a religion with an arguably more direct message and a greater institutional hold on its faithful.

Bishops who have been meeting for three weeks to plot a way forward for a Church whose membership is dwindling in Europe are concerned by Islam’s growth and worried about Christian minorities in Muslim countries, according to participants’ comments released by the Vatican.

Islam was barely mentioned in preparatory documents for the Synod on New Evangelisation, a meeting in Rome of 262 prelates from around the world been held behind closed doors.

But one participant said it had become the “buzzword” of the synod that ends this weekend.

“It’s no surprise that Islam has taken on such importance during this synod,” French-born Bishop Paul Desfarges, who heads the diocese of Constantine in Algeria, told journalists in Rome this week. “It’s an issue that concerns Europe.”

Christianity, with about 2 billion followers, is the world’s largest religion and Catholicism – its biggest denomination by far – makes up just over half that total.

But some estimates suggest that the 1.3 billion Muslims, four-fifths of them outside the Arab world, are growing in number much faster than Christians, whose numbers are shrinking in their European heartland.

Some of the “Arab Spring” uprisings that have spread across North Africa and the Middle East have propelled Islam onto the political stage.

Kyrillos William, the Catholic Coptic bishop of Assiut, painted a stark picture of the situation facing Egypt’s large Christian minority – about 10 percent of the population – since the upheavals of the Arab Spring.

“Every day since the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power, we see new steps towards the Islamisation of the state,” he said. “Christians continue to be considered second-class citizens and many of their rights are not recognized.”

In a remark that Church leaders interpreted as criticism, a senior Egyptian official has said the Church’s many schools and hospitals, which are used mostly by Muslims, gave it a presence in society much bigger than its actual size.

“Some extremists demand that we leave the country,” the bishop said. “We’ve told them: ‘No, this is our country and we’re staying’.”

In West Africa, where Christianity and Islam are vying for new followers among the many people quitting traditional religions, bishops felt Catholicism had a double disadvantage.

“The rapid expansion of Islam and especially the spreading of fundamentalism in West Africa enormously worries the Church,” said Bishop Nicodeme Anani Barrigah-Benissan from Togo.

“It only takes one day to become Muslim but it is impossible to renounce this religion later,” he said. By contrast, he added, it takes at least three years of study for an adult to become a Catholic, and the baptized can leave at will.

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