The Sainte Rita Church in Paris’ 15th arrondissement, the whitest and most bourgeois part of the city, is quite large, equal in height to a six-story building. Last Wednesday the police removed dozens of Catholic protesters opposing the demolition of the church, which is to be replaced by a real estate development. Fewer and fewer French people believe in God and churches are empty. Over the past two years, Christian associations have sold nearly 40 churches throughout the country, at prices ranging from 100,000 to 400,000 euros. Twenty-seven other churches have been demolished.
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According to the Catholic Church, more than 1,000 churches are to be sold or demolished throughout France. The 45,000 new churches built since the passage of the 1905 law separating church and state now belong to their owners — that is, private associations or the Catholic Church, not the local authorities, as had been the previous custom.
While some houses of worship are to be demolished, others are slated to become recording studios, fashion house showrooms, hotels, coffee shops, bookstores or private homes. But there is one repurposing that the authorities refuse to sanction: turning a church into a mosque. Since 1905, this changeover has only happened five times.
That is five times too many, according to Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front party. “And what if we built parking lots on top of Salafist mosques, instead of our churches?” Le Pen tweeted.
The reaction of the Socialist government headed by Manuel Valls was not far off. After a dramatic government statement early last week banning the construction of mosques with foreign funds, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that closure orders had been issued for 20 Salafist mosques. The orders were issued in keeping with the law against incitement, which states that when incitement is present in a sermon, the authorities close the mosque where it was delivered.
There are 2,449 registered Muslim prayer rooms in France, only a small number of which are officially defined as mosques. Prayer rooms can exist in any form but a mosque is a free-standing structure that costs millions of euros to build. The mosque in Strasbourg was funded by Saudi Arabia; the one in Provence was built with Moroccan money; in Roncey, funding came from Oman. Until the ban on foreign funds takes effect, there is only one country in the world whose government is prohibited from paying for the construction of a mosque in France: France itself.
French President Francois Hollande reminded journalists of the prohibition against government funding for any house of worship in a briefing last week before he left for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. After France prohibits other countries from paying for mosque construction, he stated, it will not fund any mosque and will not deviate even a millimeter from the law separating church and state.
Thus, the only means available for Muslims to build a mosque is through donations by French citizens and organizations. To this end, Hollande said he had approved the re-establishment of the Foundation for Islam in France, tapping former minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement to head it. The foundation, which was first established in 2005, had nearly succumbed to internal disputes. Indeed, less than a day after the presidential announcement, the foundation became embroiled in its first public dispute when Minister for Women’s Rights Laurence Rossignol called for Chevenement’s appointment to be vacated and for a woman to be appointed instead. Rossignol, a leftist, knows full well that Muslim activists will not work with a woman in that capacity.
Whoever heads the organization will face an impossible fundraising challenge: There are now 450 mosque plans awaiting approval — double the number five years ago — and funding must be assured in order for construction to get approved. No great leap is required to compare this figure with the number of churches slated for demolition, and the far-right parties last week moved away from the issue of personal safety to religion and ideology. The conservative right, however, is caught between the secular ideology of Charles de Gaulle and its Christian voters, who tend to come mainly from Le Pen’s party.
Le Pen reminded listeners that in 2014 the qadi of a planned mosque in Nanterre, Mohamed Boudjedi, was sentenced to three years in prison for embezzling half a million euros from the mosque’s building fund. As far as Le Pen is concerned, even approval of private funds could lead to infractions of French law, “which is utterly different from Muslim law.” Hence, she says, her plan should be approved: fewer mosques, more parking lots.
The solution of the left, even if no one openly admits it, is to rely on the republican secular model and the test of time. Does it have a chance? Cross-referencing mosque attendance with the estimated number of Muslims in France — 5.2 million — shows that only 40 percent attend services more than once a year, and this figure is declining.
The Islamic State is trying to exert influence mainly through small Salafist mosques, which number less than 100, and also operate as centers for drafting Jihadists, even if the recruits don’t physically visit the mosque. For this reason, French security officials prefer to focus on the clerics who lead the mosques. Of the 2,500 heads of official mosques, an astounding 2,100 are foreign citizens and 2,350 were ordained outside of France. Only 50 are French citizens ordained in France.
In comparison, only 10 percent of Catholic priests registered in France are foreigners.
Valls said this week that the authorities have so far deported 80 clerics suspected of incitement — and for Le Pen, there are still 2,420 to go.
Seventy percent of French people polled said that in the framework of the emergency regulations now in effect, they supported the deportation of any Muslim guilty of incitement. Among extreme left-wing voters this figure is smaller but significant: 52 percent.
This week the moderate Muslim leadership spoke out, publishing an unusual manifesto in the popular French weekly Journal du Dimanche. Forty French Muslim members of parliament, authors and academics declared that they “accept responsibility for the Muslim voice in light of the painful silence of the religious leadership of Islam.” The signatories denounced the terror attacks committed by Muslims in France, from Charlie Hebdo to the priest whose throat was slashed last month in a church in Normandy. But significantly, two were missing from the list: the 2012 shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse and at the attack on the Hyper Casher supermarket in Paris in 2015. Following public criticism, the list was quickly amended and the signatories stated they were opposed to any and all attacks.
But for secular French people and certainly for French Jews, this mishap is a symptom of the conflicting pressures within French Islam which also highlights the difficulty of cooperation. To see which side wins out — the secular leftists or Marine le Pen — we may have to wait for the elections in May 2017.