PARIS (Reuters) – France will start enrolling future Muslim prayer leaders into secular universities next autumn to teach them the law, civics and history they need to integrate, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said in an interview.
Paris will also offer continuing education to current imams, 75 percent of whom are not French citizens, he told the daily Le Parisien in the interview published on Tuesday. One-third of the 1,200 imams in France do not speak French, he said.
“This is not acceptable — we should have French imams in France who speak French,” he said.
Most of France’s 5 million Muslims are of North African origin and many imams come directly from Arab countries to preach in France.
Promoting moderate Islam through education has emerged as a key issue in several European countries following the murder last month of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Moroccan-Dutch Muslim outraged by his frank criticism of Islam.
Respecting the separation of church and state, French universities will teach student imams secular subjects needed to understand French society while Islamic institutes will provide the theology courses, Villepin said.
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“This training will begin at the start of the autumn term in 2005,” Villepin said.
French language courses for imams will start as early as January in regions with the highest concentration of Muslims around Paris, Lille, Lyon and Marseille, he added.
Villepin said security measures taken against radical Islamists had produced results. The number of fundamentalist mosques in France, which jumped from 7 in 2000 to 32 in 2003, had been brought down to 20, he said.
“The radical movement in France is not predestined to grow,” he said, adding a successful pilot program in Paris with special police cells to combat Islamic radicalism would be extended across France.
The Paris cell has stepped up surveillance of Muslim restaurants, bookshops, halal butchers and long-distance telephone centers to break up what police say are contact points for radicals seeking new converts.
French police have long used Arabic-speaking informers to monitor mosque sermons and report on radical preachers.
“At my suggestion, we have agreed with our main European partners to exchange lists of jihadis and extremist preachers,” Villepin added.
The minister said he also planned to set up a foundation next April to receive funds donated by Muslims abroad and distribute them for mosque construction in France.
Rich Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia have helped finance several mosques in France, but they require the mosque to hire imams schooled in its strict Wahhabi form of Islam.
The influential Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF) has objected to the foundation plan.