The classes, required of all "nonwestern religious leaders" who have arrived in the Netherlands since Jan. 1, will focus on Dutch culture and religious history. "We won't tell them what they should preach, since that would infringe on their right to religious freedom," said Wico Bunskoek, director of the Contact of the Continents Institute. "What we will do is inform them about what Dutch society thinks about certain issues."
The call for Dutch culture classes for Muslim clerics in the Netherlands came amid a public uproar in 2000 over comments by a Moroccan imam who called homosexuality a "contagious disease."
In a country which prides itself on its tolerance and was the first in the world to legalize homosexual marriage, the remarks were seen as a violation of Dutch social norms. Imam Khalil el Moumni, 60, later apologized, saying he hadn't intended to hurt anyone. A court later dropped hate crime charges against el Moumni.
Although the current right-center Dutch government is known for its tough stance on immigrants and immigration, the course is actually an initiative of the previous left-of-center government.
Speaking to students of the first class, right-wing Immigration Minister Hilbrand Nawijn said he supports the program and plans to propose a law that any religious leader who fails will be denied a visa. He said the course was evidence of the new Dutch right-leaning government's determination to make sure immigrants "master the language, take part in education and the work force, respect our laws and norms, and have respect for other people's right to make use of their civil liberties."
Nawijn's ideas on immigration reflect the views of slain politician Pim Fortuyn, whose party came in second in May elections and became a partner in the governing coalition even though it was left leaderless after Fortuyn's assassination days before the poll.
Fortuyn, who was homosexual, ran on an anti-immigration platform in which he called Islam a "backward, medieval religion."
Nawijn, a Fortuyn party member, was given his position with an eye to implementing some of Fortuyn's ideas. He has instituted a policy of locking asylum-seekers in detention centers pending decisions on their visa requests and proposed sending criminal immigrants - even those with Dutch nationality - back to their countries of origin.
Bunskoek said he expects 35 students to take part in the course this year. Courses run 3 days and cost 185 euros ($183). Religious leaders who arrived prior to Jan.1 can volunteer to participate. Participants are not exclusively Muslims, and may include Catholic priests from Africa, Bunskoek said.