In a Europe Torn Over Mosques, A French City Offers Accommodation

CRETEIL, France — On a recent Friday, 200 Muslim worshipers crowded into a former carpentry workshop here for noon prayers. The men knelt on red carpets in a first-floor hall, the women squeezed into the tiny administrative office upstairs.

Outside the makeshift mosque, Karim Benaissa watched other men lay rows of rainbow-colored carpets on a damp concrete slab. “Even when it’s cold, there are more faithful outside than inside,” said Benaissa, an Algerian with a tightly trimmed beard who heads the Creteil Union of Muslim Associations. “It makes me ashamed.”

But next June, Creteil’s Muslims are scheduled to move into a new, $7.4 million mosque with room for more than 2,500 worshipers. The nearly finished building, with its 81-foot minaret, stands on a knoll overlooking the town’s picturesque lake, within sight of city hall and the local police station.

The mosque will make Creteil something of an exception in Europe. From London to Cologne to Marseille, governments and residents are fighting the rise of minarets on their skylines in campaigns that underscore cultural, religious and ethnic divides within a continent undergoing its most dramatic demographic change in half a century. Islam is now Europe’s second-largest religion after Christianity, and its fastest-growing.

Mosques in Europe

But Creteil’s city government is taking a different path, helping Muslims build and finance what will be one of France’s largest new mosques.

“We wanted the mosque to be built where everyone could see it,” said Mayor Laurent Cathala, who can watch the construction from his 11th-floor office. “We didn’t want to hide it. Putting it under the window of the mayor and the police is the best way to eliminate underground sites and extremist ways.”

Still, the mosque did not come this far without a struggle. French authorities are attempting to deport its imam; anti-immigrant city council members are protesting the use of public funds for its adjacent cultural center; and some townsfolk say they fear women may no longer be allowed to wear swimsuits at the lake, for fear of offending the modesty of the worshipers. (Not so, says the mayor.)

For European Muslims — many of whom were born here as second-generation citizens — new mosques denote recognition and acceptance of their growing numbers and rising status after decades of praying in basements and abandoned buildings. For opponents, the demand for more mosques feeds fears over immigration, security and the erosion of national identity.

In London, proposals for a mega-mosque for 12,000 worshipers near the main park for the 2012 Olympic Games has sparked massive resistance.

In the Tuscan hill town of Colle di Val d’Elsa, Italy, protesters pelted local Muslims this year with sausages and dumped a severed pig’s head at the front gate of the construction site of a large, golden-domed mosque. Consumption of pork is forbidden in Islam.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel angered Muslim organizations last week when she told a congress of her Christian Democrat party that “we must take care that mosque cupolas are not built demonstratively higher than church steeples.” Battles over new mosques are underway in nearly every major city in Germany, including Cologne, where opponents say the minarets will clash with the spires of the city’s famed gothic cathedral.

A Swiss nationalist party is trying to ban minarets on all mosques.

“Anti-mosque initiatives are the new mobilizers of the right wing,” said Riem Spielhaus, a specialist in European-Islamic issues at Berlin’s Humboldt University. “The mosques are symbols of the permanent presence of Muslims. They are investing in bricks. They are going to stay.”

Cathala, a Socialist Party member who has been mayor of Creteil for three decades, sees the new mosque as “part of the demographic evolution of our town. If you’re for social justice, you can’t acknowledge part of the population and not acknowledge another part — especially concerning their religion.”

France has the largest number of Muslims of any country in Europe, an estimated 5 million — about 8 percent of the population. In suburban communities such as Creteil, population 88,000, the percentage is often higher — 20 percent here, according to Muslim association president Benaissa.

Creteil lies southeast of Paris at the terminus of the No. 8 Metro line. Trains stop at Paris landmarks such as the Opera House and Place de la Concorde before arriving at the sprawling town of white high-rise apartments, glass office complexes and American-style, boxy suburban malls. The place bears little resemblance to the Paris at the other end of the track.

The restaurant nearest the front steps of city hall serves a daily special called “Couscous comme la bas” — “couscous like they make it over there,” in immigrant home countries of the Middle East. This year’s Ramadan feast at a local gymnasium drew 5,000 Muslims.

The idea for the new Creteil mosque was conceived 15 years ago but remained mired in internal Muslim feuds for nearly a decade. Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian Muslims could agree on little except that the town needed to get its faithful out of three tiny makeshift prayer halls — none with a capacity of more than 200 people — and into a real house of worship.

“There was a generation gap,” recalled Benaissa, 44, who moved to France from Algeria at age 18 to go to college. “The older generation wanted to stick together with people from the original country; the new generation that was born here had different ideas.”

Then Mayor Cathala stepped in and offered to help find land and financing for a mosque complex that would include a restaurant, bookstore, library, exhibition hall and study rooms.

But he also had a list of demands. The Muslim community had to agree on a single spokesman, the mosque should be an architectural gem worthy of its prominent lakeside setting, the fundraising would be transparent, and the common areas of the complex would be open to all community residents, not only Muslims.

In return, Cathala would apply a liberal interpretation of a century-old French law barring the use of public funds for religious buildings. He persuaded a majority of the city council to provide nearly $1.5 million to help build the cultural center of the complex — the cafe, exhibition center, bathhouse, bookstore and study rooms.

Several French mayors have used the approach of bureaucratically separating a mosque from an associated cultural center in order to assist Muslim communities.

The motivations for that help have not always been altruistic. “After 9/11 in the U.S. and the rise of terrorism in Europe, French authorities wanted to have more control over Islam in France,” said Abdallah Zekri, an adviser to the French Council of Muslim Associations. “They realized that underground prayer halls in cellars helped extreme preachers who complained that in France, Muslims were treated like rats, while Catholics had beautiful churches.”

The French Interior Ministry has identified 1,500 Muslim places of worship. But only about 400 are actual mosques, according to Muslim associations. Most are temporary prayer halls in gymnasiums, unused shops or apartment house basements.

Cathala’s plan was hardly welcomed by everyone. “Jews pay for their synagogues, Catholics pay for their churches,” said Lysiane Choukroun, 59, a council member from the National Republican Movement Party, whose members have opposed mosque construction in several French cities. “Why should Muslims be helped by Creteil taxpayers?”

In the middle of fundraising activities, the local bank being used by Creteil’s Muslim association closed its account. Although the bank gave no reason, some French banks have expressed concern that many mosques are being funded by anonymous donations from abroad.

“It was discrimination,” said Benaissa, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his chairless office. He said money for the Creteil mosque is being raised within France.

Then, this summer, French authorities charged Creteil’s imam, Ilyes Hacene, with making inflammatory comments “linked to radical Islam” in speeches he delivered from 2000 to 2006, according to a spokesman for the regional Val de Marne police agency. Authorities are trying to strip Hacene of his citizenship and deport him.

Cathala said he believes the accusations are politically motivated. “I was astonished,” he recalled. “It took them seven years to come forward with these charges?” The police say the charges were held up by citizenship proceedings.

Despite such challenges, the project remains on track. Walking through the unfinished mosque, which has a soaring dome and imposing window openings, Benaissa said local Muslims are trying to create a uniquely French mosque, rather than copying Ottoman or Middle Eastern designs.

“This mosque is more than just an acknowledgment of our religion,” Benaissa said. “It’s an acknowledgment of a city towards its citizens.”

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday December 9, 2007.
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