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Grand Mosque of Paris pulls out of France-sponsored Muslim foundation

PARIS (RNS) The Foundation for Islam in France selected a Catholic former interior minister as president, provoking controversy.

PARIS (RNS) The powerful Grand Mosque of Paris will pull out of a new, state-sponsored Muslim foundation, criticizing “interference” in how Islam is exercised, at a time of simmering tensions surrounding France’s second-largest faith, its spokesman said.

The mosque, which represents some 250 Muslim associations, called in a statement for other Muslim groups to follow suit and “reject all attempts of stewardship” by the state.

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Officially launched in December, the Foundation for Islam in France has a purely cultural aim, while a separate body linked to it is tasked with raising funds for mosque construction and training of imams. But the selection of a 77-year-old Catholic and former interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, to head the body has stirred controversy.

The courtyard and minaret of the Grand Mosque of Paris on May 3, 2008. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Eric Parker

The courtyard and minaret of the Grand Mosque of Paris on May 3, 2008. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Eric Parker

Chevenement has opposed efforts to ban the Muslim burkini on beaches and the veil in universities, but he has also stirred opposition by calling on Muslims to be more discreet.

“We’re happy to have the state create a foundation, but the president must be Muslim and it must be done in collaboration with Muslims; we don’t want it imposed,” said Slimane Nadour, the mosque’s communications director.

But Abdallah Zekri, secretary-general of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, an umbrella body, suggested the mosque was peeved that its head, Dalil Boubakeur, was not tapped as foundation president.

“We need a foundation,” he said, suggesting Chevenement played a useful role in fundraising. Others are not so sure.

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France’s Muslim community, with an estimated 5 million people, is Western Europe’s largest, but it is splintered by ethnic and religious divisions. The country’s strongly secular creed and a spate of terrorist attacks also have helped to feed public wariness about Islam.

(Elizabeth Bryant is an RNS correspondent based in Paris)