France has launched a groundbreaking program to educate future imams and Muslim chaplains about the country and its values. The goal: to put a French stamp on Islam, the second largest religion in France. Lisa Bryant has more from Paris.
The courses are being held in an unusual location - the Catholic Institute of Paris, an institution better known for training priests and Christian scholars than Muslim clerics. Established in collaboration with the French government and the Paris mosque, the program began in January with a largely male class of 25. It aims to give the students a broad understanding of France's legal, historical and social mores.
What the year-long program does not do, says Interior Ministry spokesman Gerard Gachet is offer theology training.
Gachet says religious training for the future clerics is the role of Muslim institutes. But the government believes the courses on France will help shape a French Islam that is perfectly in touch with society.
The students at the Catholic Institute course are largely foreign born, with many coming from North and sub-Saharan Africa. The program's director, Olivier Bobineau, says they are eager to learn.
Bobineau says he hopes the students end up with a better understanding of the relationship between politics and religion in France - and the values and rules that exist here.
Experts say the courses fill a critical gap. Most of France's five to seven million Muslims - the largest Muslim community in Western Europe - were born here. By contrast, roughly 80 percent of the 1,200 imams preaching in French mosques and prayer houses were born overseas. Some cannot converse with their own faithful, much less understand French laws and social customs.
Sociologist Franck Fregosi specializes in Islam at the National Center for Scientific Research, a French think tank.
Fregosi says foreign-born imams are often unprepared for their jobs in France. He syas many Turkish clerics, for example, do not know anything about French history, some preachers cannot speak French.
Djelloul Seddiki, the director of the Al Ghazali imam training program at the Paris mosque agrees.
For example, Seddiki says, the mosque's Koranic program can teach students that a man can have up to four wives - in accordance with Muslim tradition. But polygamy is illegal in France.
The Catholic Institute's training has another goal: To ensure a moderate, tolerant Islam flourishes in France, which has been the target of Islamist terrorist attacks.
For now, the students come only from the Paris mosque. Those affiliated with other French Muslim organizations, including the popular, more fundamentalist Union of Islamic Organizations of France, do not participate - reflecting larger, political divisions within France's Muslim community.
What is clear is that the clerics graduating from the program are desperately needed. Roughly half of all French mosques have no preachers. But the new graduates are not necessarily assured of jobs.
Djelloul Seddiki of the Paris mosque.
Seddiki says many Muslim communities in France simply cannot afford to pay the salaries of full-time imams. Some of those who do preach here, from Algeria or Turkey, are paid for by their governments. The rest preach part time and sometimes free of charge.
France's Muslim community is trying to come up with its own means of financing its clerics. Seddiki, for one, believes this will happen - in time.