Two years ago, as Christmas approached, it was reported that Klara Vogl, the vicar of the Church of Norway parish in Ellingsrud, an outlying and heavily Muslim neighborhood of Oslo, Norway, planned to have schoolchildren read various passages aloud from scripture at a pre-Christmas service that was designed especially for pupils from the Ellingsrud school. One of the excerpts she’d earmarked for the service was the following, about what happened to Mary when she was about to give birth to Jesus: “Then the birth pains came to her, by the trunk of a palm tree. She said: ‘I wish I had died before this, and became totally forgotten!’ But then he called to her from beneath her: ‘Do not be sad, your Lord has made below you a stream.’”
If you don’t recognize those lines from any of the gospels, there’s a good reason for it. They’re not from the Bible. They’re from the Koran (19:23-24).
Curiously, Vogl didn’t bother informing the parents of any of the kids who would be attending the ceremony – including the parents of the kids she’d picked out to read aloud from the Islamic holy book – that she was preparing to venture so far afield from the usual order of service. But word got around (not until the other day did I find out exactly how). I am pleased to note that parents rebelled instantly at the idea, put together an impromptu campaign, and contacted the media. “I don’t have anything against my daughter learning about Islam,” Elisabeth Sjølie, whose daughter was one of those who had been selected to read aloud, told Norwegian state broadcasting (NRK), “but I have something against her preaching from the Koran without my knowing about it. Would they have dared to ask Muslim children to read from the Bible during the celebration of Eid? I don’t think so.”
After a torrent of such parental reactions, the quick-witted Vogl decided to change her plan: instead of having children read from the Koran, she’d do it herself. That didn’t please the parents either. The outcry continued.
Vogl didn’t get it. After all, she reasoned, Ellingsrud is a multicultural neighborhood. She wanted to explain to the children attending the worship service “that there are many people who have heard of Jesus, but also many who have a different view.” Besides, she liked the Koranic version of the Nativity: “It’s a very beautiful account of the birth,” she insisted. All in all, apparently, Vogl’s view was that the protesting parents just didn’t get it and needed to be educated – by, naturally, the likes of her. “I want to talk to the school and parents about how we do things. In the cultural situation we’re in as a church in the Grorud valley [where Ellingsrud is located, and where the Muslim population is on the rise all over], we have to dare to do new things.”
To be sure, not all Christian clergy in Norway were thrilled with this particular “new thing.” One of them pointed out that while Mary’s parturition may indeed figure in the Koran, the Islamic take on the events at Bethlehem, not to mention the rest of Jesus’ biography, is – hello! – more than a bit different from the Christian view. Still, the Bishop of Oslo, Ole Christian Kvarme, appearing on NRK television, gave Vogl a cheery thumbs-up, declaring genially that since she was now planning to read verses from the Koran during her homily, and was not going to include them elsewhere in the service in place of Holy Writ, everything was just fine and dandy as far as he was concerned.
Sjølie wasn’t the only one who considered checking out of the Church of Norway on account of Vogl’s foolishness. Siv Jensen, head of the Progress Party, pronounced herself “so furious” about the vicar’s harebrained scheme that she too, she said, was considering quitting the church. Jensen had earlier made clear her own reaction to Vogl’s idea: “You expect the church to be a nice place to send your children, where you don’t risk experiencing this kind of thing. It’s about coming off as so tolerant that it gets misunderstood and stupid.”
In response to the continuing deluge of complaints, the ever tone-deaf Vogl announced yet another change of plans: instead of reading from the Koran at the church service, she would just refer to the Koran.
In an exchange of e-mails the other day, Sjølie told me that in the spring of 2011, she and her family moved from Ellingsrud to the countryside, and have had no direct connection since then with either the Ellingsrud church or school. But she’s kept in touch with friends in the neighborhood, and they’ve kept her informed of developments. She was glad to let me know that neither last year nor this year have there been any proposals to include Islamic texts in a church service there – “so let’s hope they’ve scrapped that for good.” In any case, as a direct result of the campaign by Sjølie and her fellow irate parents, the Ellingsrud school was given “clear written instructions that they had no permission to let children preach from other religions, or any religions at all, without permission from their parents.”
Reflecting on the events of two years ago, Sjølie said that the whole episode was particularly strange owing to the church’s utter failure to contact parents beforehand: “it seemed as if they were doing it a bit under the table, and hoped that no one would notice.” In fact, as it turns out, Sjølie was the first of the parents to find out about Vogl’s scheme – her daughter just happened to mention it to her in passing. And when Sjølie mentioned it to a friend whose little girl was in another grade at the same school, the friend asked her kid about it, and it turned out that she, too, was scheduled to read from the Koran. At this point, one could have been excused for wondering: exactly how much Islamic scripture is Vogl planning to press on these pupils, anyway?
Sjølie, for one, was not a happy camper. “I contacted the school, and the teacher said it was the vicar’s idea – but that she thought it was a good thing to do, too.” Sjølie underscores an important point – namely, that the inclusion of Koranic verses in the pre-Christmas service was not a question of wanting Muslim kids to feel included. In fact, there weren’t even going to be any Muslims present at the church service; the Ellingsrud school had made other arrangements that day for its Muslim charges. No, the Koranic material was intended solely for the consumption of the progeny of Christian parents.
Speaking of which, one of the ironies here is that Sjølie and her husband aren’t even believers. Still, she wanted her daughter “to take part in a Christmas service for children so that she could learn about Norwegian culture, tradition, and Christmas customs. So it was also very strange that she would be learning about the Koran there instead….How strange for the church to spend more time promoting other people’s beliefs rather than their own when they have children visiting, many of whom are not regular churchgoers!”
So there’s your Christmas story, with an ending as happy, perhaps, as can be secured in such matters nowadays: thanks to lightning-fast parental efforts, a pre-Christmas worship service for children of Christian families was prevented from being used by the clergywoman in charge to propagandize for Islam. A small victory, and a weird one, in a ridiculous battle that should never have had to be fought in the first place – but a victory nonetheless, and in these twisted times we should be grateful, I guess, for all the victories we can muster.