03/15/2011, 00.00
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If Muslims ask for Europe’s "empty" churches...

by Samir Khalil Samir
In France, an Islamic organization has asked the French Church for the opportunity to pray in unused churches. And what if Christians in Egypt and Algeria request the use of mosques on Sundays? In order to avoid increasing conflicts in Europe, Islam needs to become mentally and culturally Western.

Rome (AsiaNews) - A Muslim group has asked to use the empty churches in France for Muslims to pray in, solving (at the expense of Christians) the traffic problems caused by Muslims who pray in the streets. Fr. Khalial Samir Samir, an expert scholar of Islam, reflects on the embarrassing proposal, calling for Islam in Europe to become more "European" and less "Arab".

In a press release published Friday, March 11, 2011, the "Banlieuses Respect " Collective asked authorities in charge of organization of the Church of France, to place at Muslims’ disposal "empty churches for Friday prayers". Hassan M. Ben Barek, a spokesman for the Collective, said the measure would "prevent Muslims from having to pray on the streets" and being "politicians’ hostages”.

In fact, for several years now, every Friday, alongside dozens of mosques in France, Muslims have blocked the surrounding streets for an hour or two, spreading mats on the roads to pray. In many cases, local authorities close their eyes to this offense, and in some cases the police are there to ensure the safety of those who block the streets. This situation is on the rise in France (for example, Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier. Montreuil, Nice, Paris, Puteaux, Strasbourg, Torcy ...). A situation that is found all over the world (Athens, Brussels, Birmingham, Cordova, Moscow, New York ...) and also in Italy (Albenga, Canicattì, Como, Gallarate, Milan, Modena, Moncalieri, Naples, Rome ...). In the Muslim world this phenomenon is present, especially in Egypt. On 10 December, in Lyon, Marine Le Pen (National Front) denounced the  Muslims "street prayers", which led to negative reactions towards the Muslim community in France.

Three points:

1.       first on the reason for this request, namely the lack of space in the mosques;

2.       second on the consequences of this lack of space, namely congested streets near mosques;

3.       third on the proposed solution to solve this problem, namely "the provision of churches empty for Friday prayers."


Lack of space in the mosques

There are some 75 Muslim places of worship in Paris, of which you can find the details in each of the 20 arrondissements (http://mosquee.free.fr/Adresses/Ile_de_France/75_Paris/75_Paris.html). Moahmmed Moussaoui, President of the Conseil francais du culte Muslims (CFCM), since June 2008, professor of mathematics at the University of Avignon, in a very subdued and reflective interview on December 15, 2009 on Europe 1 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyyPIfuvo-o&feature=player_embedded) states that if one calculates the number of Muslims in France at five million (some say four million) and assuming that 17% of them go to the mosque on Friday, that number would be about 850 thousand people . Assuming that each person requires one by two metres, the required capacity of Muslim places of worship would be 850 thousand square meters. Currently there are around 250 thousand. Three times more space in the mosques is needed. The figures are obviously fluctuating. It is almost impossible to estimate the number of Muslims in France since French documents do not indicate religion. Moreover the proportion of those who practise their religion is even more difficult to assess. On the other hand, it is unusual for Muslim women go to the mosque to pray, those who want to pray do so more readily at home, which reduces the area required for places of worship.

A year later in another interview dated December 22, 2010, by the same Mossaoui, we read: "A study on the space for Muslim worship says that 300 thousand square meters are currently available in France. Double that is needed, according to the CFCM. Today, 150 construction projects are underway throughout the country". Which is "an irrefutable recovery" for Massaoui. (http://www.liberation.fr/societe/01012309460-prieres-de-rue-les-fideles-dans-l-impasse).

Even if it takes twice as much space, it is up to the Muslim community to solve the problem. The State or the Church has nothing to do with it. The same Mossaoui said as much, in a television interview dated to December 2009, that the French state should not have to fund mosques, rather Muslims themselves with the help of funding from abroad. On the other hand, to avoid feeding negative reactions towards the Muslim community, then the rather generalized practise of Mayors in granting long leases of land (most often for one euro per year) for the construction of mosques needs to be reconsidered. The Ordinance of 21 April 2006 allowed for these concessions "for allocation to an association of worship for a religious building open to the public." In many cases, the administrative court has estimated that these practices are “similar to a disguised subsidy”, which is contrary to the 1905 law.  

Blocking streets near the mosques to pray

As we said, this is a common practice in Muslim countries. In fact, population growth, as well as a renewed religious fervour, have meant that the existing mosques and places of worship are not enough to contain all the faithful on Friday at noon. Given that this is the case in Muslim countries where the separation between state and religion is virtually nonexistent, the faithful have been in the habit of occupying sidewalks and streets near the mosques, and of diverting traffic.

For over a decade, this practise has also developed in Europe, although it is perfectly illegal, since the street belongs to all pedestrians as well as motorists. This situation is recognized as totally unacceptable by all reasonable people, regardless of the principle of secularism. It becomes even more so, if one takes into account that these exceptions are no longer exceptional, since it takes place every Friday. And since this exception is applied to a specific religion, Islam, the impression of many is of an "invasion" of land, a kind of "conquest" of the national territory by the "Muslims" . There are no justifications for this occupation of public territory.

On the contrary, should a group of citizens (Muslims, Christians or other religions) make an official request for an exceptional use of a public road for a limited time, for a party or ceremony, this would not pose a problem. It seems to me that the current situation does no more than reinforce and justify Islamophobic reactions. And this, in my opinion, is a fundamental point. It has become commonplace to speak, rightly and wrongly, of "Islamophobia." Of course this may motivated by more or less racist reasons, which is totally unacceptable, even if it happens everywhere. However if people, in the name of the particular group to which they belong, behave in a manner contrary to the laws and rules of the land, or even to the traditions and customs, then, these people are responsible for the resulting negative responses. In this case, Muslims are partly to blame for the Islamophobia which is expanding throughout Europe. It is up to Muslims themselves to protest against those who cause these reactions and educate their co-religionists.

Moreover, the fact that the phenomenon of praying on the street was born and largely remains in Muslim countries, it means that it is not just the West’s problem, but of Islam. Let me explain: many justify this objectionable behaviour (the occupation of a public place by a certain group) with the fact that there is no space for this group. This tends to insinuate that the group (in this case Muslims) are mistreated or discriminated against. Not so, because in Muslim countries the situation is exactly the same, and even more widespread. The explanation is that the "system of Muslim prayer" has not been redesigned for the modern city. If you were to apply this system to Christians, for example, the roads would be completely blocked. If all Christians were required to meet Sunday at noon, be sure that no church could contain them. This was formerly a problem, and still is for the Coptic Church. There is only one church for the celebration of Mass on Sundays, which gathers the whole community.

Hence the need to construct two overlapping places of worship (in the Coptic Church) or accept having  numerous Masses per church. Moreover, during the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church authorized the anticipation of Sunday Mass to Saturday evening, contrary to the whole Tradition, to allow as many faithful as possible to participate in the Eucharist. It is an internal matter for the community, which, if alive, must find ways to adapt to the world, and not ask the world to adapt to it!

Finally, in the dozens of videos that show Muslims at prayer in the street, which can be seen on Youtube, for example, I have never seen women in prayer. One of two things: either it is because it is not convenient, and then it is equally improper for a man; or, because Friday prayers in the mosque is not an obligation, and if so, then this applies to everyone. Unless it is because the public prayer is "a matter for men," probably because, in this case, it takes on a "political" aspect.


Provision of empty churches for Friday prayer

The March 11 proposal of the Collective, calling on the Church of France, to "provide Muslims empty churches for Friday prayers", is astounding. These "empty churches" are consecrated places and it would never occur to a Christian to use them for anything other than the liturgical ceremonies, or sacred music - an exception that is always possible. It would be unthinkable to use them to celebrate a non-Christian cult.

On the other hand, a church that served as a mosque would have to be re-equipped for the needs of Muslim prayer. Many typically Christian elements would have to be removed and typically Muslim ones added. And above all these "empty churches" are not destined to remain empty, but on the contrary to be occupied as soon as possible by a Christian community or a monastic community, which is happening more and more throughout Europe. Now it seems unlikely that such a place, more or less once converted into a mosque, could be "repossessed" and turned back to church. It would be a great loss for the Muslim community and could lead to much bitterness and religious conflicts. The Christians would then be accused of being Islamophobic, revanchists, disrespectful of Muslim sensitivities, unbrotherly towards them, and so on.

Finally, imagine for a moment the opposite. If in a Muslim country (Egypt or Algeria, for example) the indigenous Christians (in Egypt) or immigrant Christians (in Algeria) asked Muslims to give them a mosque, since they have many, or to lend them one for Sunday, or only for important celebrations: Christmas, Epiphany, the beginning of Lent, Easter, Pentecost and the Assumption, what would the reaction of Muslims be?


In conclusion, it seems important that a new relationship between the Muslim community and the European population be established in France and Europe, a relationship based on cooperation, friendship and mutual esteem. There are extremist fringes on both sides, which we should help each other to de-fanaticise. French Muslims represent less than 10% of the population elsewhere in Europe the proportion is lower. Islam in Europe poses a problem, since it is not seen simply as a religion, but also as a culture that penetrates all areas of daily life. Consequently, there may be a conflict of cultures. Europe has worked for centuries to separate religion and society, and everything is marked by a secularized Christian culture.

I think the Muslim community must make a serious attempt to accept that the religious phenomenon remains, as far as possible, a private affair. The more Islam moves in this direction, the less opposition it will find. This does not mean being less Muslim, far from it, it means being Muslim in a different, more inner, way.

Asking the Church to provide currently unused churches at the disposition of Muslims is a major embarrassment at the very moment when the effort of believers is focused on re-evangelizing those who have strayed from Christian practice. Asking the State for public subsidies in the form of a lease, embarrasses the State and the public who will perceive it as a subterfuge. It is a far better thing to rely on one’s own strengths and the solidarity of Muslims (avoiding, however, that this foreign aid is not subject to certain conditions).

According to the president of the CFCM there are currently about 150 places of worship under construction. We must insist that the municipalities do not pose ideological obstacles to the construction of mosques, if they adhere to zoning regulations. In my opinion, in order for Muslims and Islam not to be seen as a foreign body, great effort have to be made in the formation of imams in France, imams who are perfectly integrated into French culture and mentality, (or the wider European Union context).

As long as Islam is culturally "Arab" as long as Muslims believe that to be a true Muslim they must be closer to the original Arab culture, there will be uneasiness. This is, to me, the vocation of the Muslims of Europe: the creation of a Western interpretation (French, European ...) of Islam, which harmonises the Muslim faith and spirituality with Western modernity, namely, secularism and human rights . I am convinced that this is possible - and is already under way - but this requires an effort by all to reach its destination, and above all the desire for an Islam thus conceived.

Finally, as suggested in point 3, greater reflection is needed on how to maintain the principle of "community of prayer” (salât al-jumu’ah), however,  rethinking its modalities to account for cultural and practical realities. In other words, if there is a conflict of interest, first we must look for the desired goal in the letter of the Law (maqâsid al-shari'ah) rather than the letter of the Shari'ah.


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