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France to Build Islamic Center in Paris

  • Lisa Bryant

French Muslims attend a mass prayer at a prayer hall in a unused former fire station, Paris, September 16, 2011.

French Muslims attend a mass prayer at a prayer hall in a unused former fire station, Paris, September 16, 2011.

Paris plans to build a new Islamic center to address two issues, a dearth of mosques for the city's sizable Muslim community and a new law banning street prayers. In the interim, Muslims been invited to worship in an unusual venue - an old fire station at the edge of the city.

For many practicing Muslims in Paris, Friday prayers means having to pack in overflowing mosques. Or when there is no more space, by rolling out prayer rugs on the city's sidewalks. No longer.

A new law has gone into force this month, banning France's estimated 5 million Muslims from praying on the streets - in line with the country's separation of religion and state.

Converting a fire station

French authorities have offered a stop-gap solution, which is the cavernous quarters of an old fire station in northern Paris. Hundreds of people emerged from the facility one recent sunny afternoon, spilling into a wide boulevard just a stone's throw from the city's ring road.

For Guinea-Bissau native Oummou Savanneh, the fire station is a much better option than her local mosque, located just a half-mile away. Savanneh said now there is lots of space, and toilets, for worshippers.

Algerian Sayid Rahmani also is pleased. Rahmani said French authorities now understand that it is not normal for Muslims to pray on the street.

Muslim clerics say they expect several thousand faithful will use the facility. It already is overflowing. Moussa Diakite, rector of the nearby Polonceau mosque, helps lead Friday prayers, taking turns with another rector.

Diakite said it is too early to say whether the facility will work. Either way, he noted, it is only a temporary solution.

Paris Islamic center

Paris authorities agree. They have offered a three-year lease for the facility. For the long term, said sub-prefect Renaud Vedel, the government plans to help build an Islamic institute in Paris.

Vedel said public funds will finance the cultural part of the center, while the Islamic community will finance the religious part.

French Muslims, many of them from North and sub-Saharan Africa, have long complained about the problems of building new mosques - from a lack of funding, to bureaucratic red tape, to a raft of legal challenges filed by French opposed to them.

Bruno Gollnisch, a senior member of the far-right National Front party, however, said the solution is not building new mosques.

"The solution in my opinion is… to reverse the trend of immigration and to try and get these people settled back in their home country," said Gollnisch.

With anti-immigration sentiments running high in France, some see the street-prayer ban as a move by the center-right government to gain votes ahead of 2012 elections. The government sparked controversy earlier this year by banning the face veil. Critics saw it as another political ploy, since the veil is worn by very few Muslim women in France.

Muslims interviewed in Paris said they were unaware of plans to construct an Islamic center.

But one woman worshipper, who gave her name only as Rhama, said the Muslim community deserves a large mosque in a central area - not tucked away on the fringe of the city.