France finds makeshift mosque at old fire station

AP News
Posted: Sep 15, 2011 12:46 PM
France finds makeshift mosque at old fire station

For years, Muslims by the hundreds, dodging foot and vehicle traffic, have unfurled rugs on northern Paris sidewalks and put their foreheads to the ground outside two mosques for Friday prayers _ for the simple reason that there's not enough space inside.

Now the interior minister _ who's also one of President Nicolas Sarkozy's top advisers _ has devised a stopgap solution: On Friday, a unused former fire station nearby will be outfitted to host two large prayer halls.

The move tackles one of France's thorniest social dilemmas in recent years: How to integrate a large and expanding Muslim population that often feels alienated in a proudly secular country with deep Roman Catholic roots.

It also comes as conservative and unpopular Sarkozy is looking at a potentially tough re-election bid next year, and has come under pressure from a far-right flank that decries the sight of Muslim worshippers kneeling in the streets.

Authorities and Muslim leaders on Wednesday reached a three-year deal in which the two mosques can use the 2,000-square meter (20,000-sq. foot) site, ending weeks of tense talks on issues like rent, opening hours and religious requirements.

The accord came two days before the Friday deadline _ set early last month by Interior Minister Claude Gueant _ for the former warehouse for a fire station barracks and training center to be used as a prayer venue.

"Praying in the streets is not worthy of a religious practice, and it runs counter to the principle of secularism," said Gueant, who is also the Minister of Religion, in an interview published Thursday in Le Figaro newspaper.

"I have said the practice of praying in the streets must stop and it will stop on the foreseen date," he said. "We could go so far as to use force if needed, but it's a hypothesis I rule out because dialogue has borne its fruit."

The el-Fath and rue Myrha mosques in northern Paris draw many locals with roots in North and sub-Saharan Africa, and who live in the hardscrabble Goutte d'Or area near the famed Sacre Coeur basilica overlooking Paris.

Mohamed Saleh Hamza, rector of the rue Myrha mosque, said his mosque will be closed for Friday prayers for the next several weeks as a way to encourage the transfer to the former fire station. He expects 3,000 or 4,000 to turn up for prayers there.

The fire station idea, in part, aims to tide over Muslim worshippers until a new Islamic cultural center, complete with a large prayer area, goes up in Goutte d'Or by 2013 _ though that target date is far from certain.

The former fire station is about a kilometer (half-mile) from the two mosques, on a boulevard with little pedestrian traffic and a stone's throw from Paris' ring road.

On Thursday, workers swept debris off the concrete floor, piled up prayer rugs, installed faucets and sinks for pre-prayer washing and hauled in fire extinguishers as police officials and religious leaders inspected the site.

F.D. Drame, a 27-year-old homemaker wearing a Muslim headscarf, dropped by Thursday to look at the site, and find out whether women too will have a place to pray _ which they will. Only men take part in the street prayers: Women mostly did their Friday prayers at home, she said.

"We are really happy," she said. "But it seems hardly by chance that this plan is coming just before the presidential election ... this site has been sitting unused here for years."

Gueant, a former chief-of-staff for Sarkozy, largely kept to the background during the talks that were carried out by Muslim leaders and the Paris police department, which falls under his authority.

The minister has run afoul for his remarks about Islam in France in the past. In April, he drew criticism from anti-racism groups for saying: "It's true that the growth in the number of believers in this religion ... a certain number of behaviors pose a problem."

Religion in France is mostly considered a private affair _ and public showing-off of one's belief is frowned upon by a large part of society, and increasingly has been cracked down upon by the law.

France has banned religious wear including Jewish skullcaps, Muslim headscarves and Christian crufixes in public schools. This past spring, the government banned women from wearing face-covering Muslim niqabs and burqas in the streets.

Because of a gaping lack of mosques, many of France's estimated 5 million-plus Muslims have been driven underground _ at times literally _ in makeshift mosques to pray, such as in garages or basements. Outdoor prayers have also taken place in the southeastern cities of Marseille and Nice.

Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris mosque, estimated that 4,000 mosques are needed across the country _ more than twice the 2,200 up and running today.

A much-heralded 1905 law laid out a strict separation between religion and state, meaning that no government funds can go to the building of sites like mosques, churches or synagogues. Religious communities are left to their own devices when it comes to paying for prayer halls.

Paris' overflowing mosques have long been a political football.

In June last year, some extreme-right provocateurs tried to organize a "Sausage and Wine" cocktail near one of the mosques at Friday prayer time, but police banned it on the grounds that it could threaten public order. Islam bans the consumption of alcohol and pork products.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right National Front party, this summer called street prayers a form of "occupation" _ a word loaded with historical value _ as well as a "political act by fundamentalists."

AP interviews with several worshippers on the sidewalks last Friday turned up little evidence of that. They welcomed a chance to move indoors to pray, regretted the brief inconvenience to passers-by and showed little or no knowledge of the political debate over their street prayers.

On that day _ technically the last when the street prayers will be permitted _ police entirely blocked off the street in front of the el-Fath mosque, where Muslim calls to prayer echoed from a loudspeaker in a luggage shop next door. Cyclists dodged worshippers in the bike lane as some faithful laid out plastic sheets to pray on.

"I'm not against moving ... the street noise is a bit of a problem," said Mohammed Barry, a 26-year-old software engineer, after praying. "If the place is clean that's enough. The whole world belongs to God."

Said Gomaa Elbasyouni, a native of Egypt, who was told by a reporter about the fire station mosque plan.

"If a good place for more people to pray is found, it's better ... There aren't enough mosques in France."