A homeschooling innovation brings opportunity and danger
Said Najafabady is a volunteer minister and translator who works in Molenbeek, the immigrant neighborhood in central Brussels that became notorious in the wake of Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. The Iranian, a Muslim convert to Christianity, continued to meet Muslim-background believers in regular house gatherings even as the borough became the center of a manhunt for Islamic militants behind the Paris attacks that killed 130.
“Yes, Molenbeek is a place with a lot of criminals and it’s one of the lowest parts of the city, but it’s still a place where you can find life and peace,” Najafabady told me by phone.
Following a weeklong search for Molenbeek resident Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old suspect in the Paris attacks, Belgian authorities put their capital on virtual lockdown. With Brussels’ subway system, schools, and many businesses closed, authorities carried out 19 raids and arrested about 20 terror suspects starting Nov. 22. At a midnight press conference acknowledging Abdeslam was still on the run, Prime Minister Charles Michel announced he was extending the lockdown and leaving the city on the highest threat alert: “We fear an attack like in Paris, with several individuals, perhaps in several places,” he said.
Police backed by heavily armed soldiers fanned across central Brussels, standing guard outside the central train station and at intersections. With helicopters flying overhead, police evacuated restaurants, blocked roads, and urged residents to stay away from windows. The unprecedented security matched precautions in Paris, a four-hour drive south.
Ten days before, suicide bombers and gunmen all linked to the Islamic State, or ISIS, reportedly set off from Belgium and struck the French capital—with explosions near the Stade de France, street shootings at restaurants, and a massacre at the Bataclan concert hall. With 130 people dead and 368 reported injured, French President François Hollande called the highly coordinated attacks “an act of war.”
The Paris attacks followed by just hours an Islamic State bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 43. They came days after aviation experts concluded a bomb likely planted by ISIS caused a Russian passenger jet crash in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 on board. One week after the Paris spree, Islamic jihadis struck a hotel in Mali frequented by international workers, killing 19 guests, including one American.
Taken together, the attacks represent a dangerous new capacity for the Islamic State and its affiliates to carry out attacks far beyond the group’s base of operations in Syria and Iraq.
Molenbeek is a densely populated district of Brussels just one subway stop from the city center and minutes from the headquarters of the European Union. A community dating back to the 1960s when the Belgian government encouraged immigration from North Africa to support demands for labor, Molenbeek is predominantly made up of Moroccans and is about 40 percent Muslim, in a country with a Muslim population of 5 percent, the highest in Europe.
Abdeslam was born in Molenbeek and was a childhood friend of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the other suspected planner of the Paris attacks. Abdeslam’s brother, along with five other attackers, blew himself up, and Abaaoud was killed in a shootout following the attacks.
The brothers are known to have traveled to Syria, and to have had ongoing communications with ISIS leaders there.
“Molenbeek is a pit stop for radicals and criminals of all sorts,” said Bilal Benyaich of the Brussels-based Itinera Institute. “It’s a place where you can disappear.”
Terrorists with ties to Molenbeek were implicated in the 2004 Madrid bombing and an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels last year. More recently, arms bought there were used in January’s Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. And Moroccan national Ayoub el-Khazzani, who was tackled by Americans after he opened fire on a high-speed train to Paris in August, also hailed from the district. The area’s white non-Muslim residents report being openly pressured by Salafist Muslims to convert.
In short, Molenbeek is the kind of radical ghetto lax European attitudes toward immigration and integration have allowed to fester, the kind of community whose existence is stoking fears about an influx of Muslim immigrants or refugees arriving in the United States.
But the dangers are precisely why Christians like Said Najafabady continue to immerse themselves in the district’s life and ministry.
Najafabady, who himself became a Christian after immigrating with his family to Brussels in 2000, says Molenbeek may be rife with Muslim radicals, but it’s also alive with new Christian converts. The Arab Evangelical Church meets in an old building on a busy thoroughfare not far from the above-ground train that passes through. Led by an Egyptian pastor, the congregation includes Moroccans, Algerians, Libyans, and others. It also hosts additional services for immigrants from Africa, Eastern Europe, and Najafabady’s Iran.
The small Iranian fellowship, the Farsi Outreach Mission, met at the church the week following the Paris attacks, despite the tension in Molenbeek’s streets. The church, said Najafabady, is a place for breaking down barriers, including the historic tension between Arabs and Persians (or modern-day Iranians) that dates back centuries.
“It’s a very hard tension, but becoming a Christian has transformed our minds. These Arabs are now my brothers,” he told me.
South of the city center, the area’s largest international church, the Brussels Christian Center, canceled services on Nov. 22 in the wake of the weekend lockdown. But members of the congregation redoubled efforts to staff a volunteer ministry at an activity center serving the thousands of migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere who have been arriving in Belgium for months. The work has brought together churches across the city and from Western and minority ethnic backgrounds. Volunteers prepare meals, assist with shopping, and teach English classes that include opportunities for evangelism.
“It’s important to gather in the wake of attacks, and to serve,” said Carlton Deal, director of Serve the City and pastor of The Well, a church meeting in four different ethnic neighborhoods. While others canceled services, The Well congregations met on Nov. 22, said Deal. “We have a long ways to go, but we have good friendships forming with Muslims, and we find them open to Jesus. They are often better faith conversation partners than we can have with secular Europeans.”
Deal and other church leaders planned to meet with dignitaries and politicians at the annual European Prayer Breakfast, set for Dec. 2, despite the threats. The security lockdown, said Deal, “is of course very normal in other parts of the world, but should we imagine something like this will be important in tomorrow’s Europe?” Loving one’s neighbor “has taken on a new face,” he added, and so should perceptions of Western Europe’s romantic cities:
“Europe is not Busch Gardens; it’s not castles and cathedrals. It’s a new reality.”