WARSAW, Poland—At 43, Selim Chazbijewicz speaks and acts like any Catholic Pole.

He alternates his time between a family home in Gdansk's smart Oliwa surburb, and a pedagogy institute in nearby Olsztyn where he lectures in political science.

But Chazbijewicz isn't quite an average Pole.

For one thing, he's a leading member of Poland's Union of Tartars, and a direct descendant of the fierce Turkic tribes who invaded Eastern Europe in the late Middle Ages. For another, he's a Muslim imam, or prayer leader, who worships not in Oliwa's stately 16th Century cathedral but in the local mosque.

Built with Saudi funding in 1990, a year after the collapse of communist rule, the Oliwa mosque has room for 200, and gets around half that at regular prayer meetings. Besides Tartars, they include Arab, Turkish, and Asian visitors who've come to the Baltic city for studies or business, or out of curiosity to see a community that's been living here barely observed for centuries.

This June, all of that could change. For Pope John Paul II has accepted an invitation to meet and pray with Chazbijewicz and other Muslims during his eighth visit to Poland.

“After 600 years of living among Catholics, we wanted to acknowledge our gratitude to the Church for fostering such a tolerant attitude to Muslims here,” the imam explained. “But this meeting will have great symbolic meaning for followers of Islam everywhere, by showing it's possible for Christians and Muslims to live peacefully together and engage in religious dialogue.”

Poland's seven registered Muslim associations currently total 20,000 members, of whom around a quarter are Tartars like Chazbijewicz.

Unlike their co-religionists in Western Europe, who are mostly products of postwar immigration, Muslims have lived here since the 14th century invasions, making them indigenous, like the hard-pressed Muslims of Bosnia.

Polish Muslims helped defend their adopted country during periods of war and occupation, and had their own National Army battalions until as late as 1939. Today, though they've lost their language, they've kept their faith intact. But attempts to find militant Islamic recruits here have failed.

In June 1997, when Europe's first Catholic-Muslim Joint Council was set up in Poland, its statutes committed it to “overcome stereotypes caused by ignorance” by “maintaining the theological sovereignty of both faiths.” It's hoped the council will be expanded to take in Muslims from Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and other countries, many of whom are expected to visit Poland for the meeting with John Paul II.

“Although the Pope usually sees Muslim leaders when visiting Islamic countries, he hasn't done so in Europe, despite the presence of large Muslim communities,” explained Bishop Wladyslaw Miziolek, a member of the ecumenical council of Poland's Catholic Church. “Poland's small Muslim population has always lived here harmoniously, preserving its religion but accepting local culture. As such, it provides an example of interreligious coexistence.”

5,000 Mosques in Russia

Examples of coexistence are increasingly needed. As in the West, Islam has proliferated in Eastern Europe since the collapse of communism, underlining its place as the world's fastest growing religion.

When Russia's first Muslim university opened at Kazan in Tatarstan last September, it marked another milestone in Islam's steady expansion. With a population of just half a million, the autonomous region already boasts 800 Muslim councils and several hundred mosques, almost all of them built since 1991.

Beyond Tartarstan, Russia's 20 million Sunni Muslims are mostly concentrated in the Caucasus, and had their faith recognized as an “inseparable part” of the national heritage under Russia's 1997 religious law.

Islamic Sharia law was made binding in Chechnya at the beginning of February. But Muslims operate over 5,000 mosques nationwide in Russia, including five in Moscow.

Ukraine's 240 Muslim associations have 40,000 members in the capital Kiev alone, while in the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, steps have been taken to re-establish traditional Muslim ascendancies.

In Turkmenistan, Muslims already make up 80% of an ex-Soviet population of 3.7 million. The world's largest mosque is being constructed in the capital, Ashchabad.

4 Million in France

In Western Europe too, Islam has expanded rapidly in the past two decades from the Middle East and North Africa, whose combined population, put at 240 million in 1993, is forecast to double to 500 million by the year 2025.

Out of a total West European Muslim population of 15 million, France's 4 million Muslims make up about 6.8% of its inhabitants, while Germany's 2 million-member minority runs 2,000 mosques, compared to a mere handful before World War II.

The neighboring Netherlands hosts 450,000 Muslims and 500 mosques, while the opening of the latest of Rome's five mosques in 1995 was attended by 650,000 Muslims from Italy, where adherents of Islam easily outnumber all other mainstream non-Catholic denominations.

Britain's 3 million-strong Muslim population grew annually by 32,000 in 1992-4, at a time when membership of the established Anglican Church was falling each year by 14,000. Practicing Muslims are widely expected to outnumber practicing Christians by the year 2000 in Britain, where strict religious and social Islamic customs are reviving rather than declining among local-born Muslims.

Western Europe's largest mosque is currently being constructed with Saudi funding in Belgium, where a Brussels-based Islamic Center openly describes its aim as the “Islamicisation of European nations.”

Yet at the same time, complaints of harassment and discrimination are growing among Europe's Muslims.

In a 1996 brochure, the London-based Calamus Foundation charged that “Islamophobia” had “replaced anti-semitism as the acceptable face of prejudice in Western discourse,” and said Islam had “succeeded communism as the enemy in the minds of many Western politicians and commentators.”

Many Muslims agree.

Rising Tensions

In mid-July, the European Parliament voted down calls for a common policy against “religious fundamentalism.”

But Chalid Duran, an editor of the London-based quarterly, Trans Islam, thinks European governments have made a mistake in failing to support Muslim moderates against hard-line Islamic ideologists who are committed to destroying Western society.

“Islamists believe the rich Europeans, like Americans, have become decadent and lost their will to struggle,” Duran said. “European countries should be doing more to support Muslim liberals as a defense against Islamic attacks. Their failure to do so means non-Islamist Muslims enjoy little respect.”

Besides the former Soviet Union, other East European countries have Muslim minorities too, ranging from a still-unrecognized minority of 20,000 in the Czech Republic, where the first mosque opened at Brno in July, to larger groups in predominantly Orthodox Bulgaria and Romania.

In Warsaw, Bishop Wladyslaw Miziolek thinks the Polish model of “assimilation combined with distinctiveness” is what the Catholic Church should be encouraging everywhere.

“There's no doubt we face a Muslim problem — fundamentalists are saying Europe has abandoned its faith and should belong to them,” the Bishop told the Register. “But we can live well together if we allow each culture to display its distinctive features and ensure the millennium becomes a time of dialogue — not just between Christians but between religions.”

That's a view likely to be echoed by responsible spiritual leaders on both sides.

In May, a top-level Catholic-Islamic commission was inaugurated at the Vatican, co-chaired by Francis Cardinal Arinze, chairman of the Papal Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and Sheikh Fawzi Fadel Zifzaf, the head of the Committee for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions at Egypt's Al-Azhar University.

But efforts will be needed by local church leaders too if initiatives like this are to bear fruit.

‘A Religion of Peace’

Hasan Eissan, a psychology professor at Cairo University, thinks Western opinion has been sidetracked for too long by the provocative words and deeds of Islamic politicians.

“The West should realize Islam is a religion of peace, just like Christianity, and that the fanatics have no claim to represent it,” Eissan told the Register. “A humanitarian Islam, far from threatening Europe, can enrich it with new values. But it won't be possible to avoid conflicts without a gigantic effort of dialogue between forces of moderation acting to build bridges.”

Chalid Duran agrees. He sees a growing gap between Islamic militants, who view Europe as an enemy to be destroyed, and religious Muslims who believe Europe merely offers fertile conditions for peacefully expanding their faith.

In January, Germany's Catholic bishops said their country's 700,000 Muslim children should have the same right as Christians to receive religious lessons at state schools.

“A commitment to values with roots in religion has great importance for society,” the Bishops' statement added. “A state which is guided by principles of freedom and neutrality in views of the world cannot answer questions about God and eternal life. But nor should any government abandon religious lessons at public schools — it should have various religious communities as its partners in this area.”

Should Catholics and Muslims be co-operating more closely to defend the presence of faith and the sacred in European life?

If so, Bishop Miziolek thinks the Pope's June meeting with Muslims will confirm the Catholic Church's wish for closer contacts.

“The Pope will recall our common roots in the ancient tradition of Abraham, as well as in Jesus, who is seen by Muslims as a prophet, though not as the Son of God,” the bishop added. “At a time when powerful circles are showing conflicting attitudes and dispositions, an event like this could succeed in altering the climate of opinion.”

During a record 13-day pilgrimage, John Paul II will take in 16 dioceses and 21 towns, as well as beat-ifying 108 martyrs and making his first-ever address to a national parliament.

But the meeting with Muslims will have a special poignancy too.

Selim Chazbijewicz hopes it will take place in his Oliwa mosque. He traces his Tartar family back 500 years in Poland. And though he hasn't had a chance to make the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, he had no trouble obtaining theological training to be an imam, since his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were also imams before him.

Though living in Europe's most Catholic country, Chazbijewicz says Polish Muslims encounter few problems. He believes the planned meeting with the Pope will have a significance well beyond Poland's borders.

“We are self-governing and independent of foreign groups, so no one can interfere in our decisions,” Chazbijewicz told the Register on Feb. 10.

“We have always been open to others, and are determined to stay that way, doing what we can to prove there's an honored place for Muslims in Europe.”

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw, Poland.