Visitors watch members of the Muslim community praying in the Paris Grand Mosque during an open day weekend for mosques in France, Jan. 10, 2016.
Visitors watch members of the Muslim community praying in the Paris Grand Mosque during an open day weekend for mosques in France, Jan. 10, 2016.

PARIS - The influential Paris Grand Mosque has announced it is pulling out of a new, state-sponsored Muslim foundation, criticizing “interference” in how Islam is exercised at a time of simmering tensions and divisions surrounding France's second-largest faith.

The mosque, which represents about one-tenth of France's 2,500 mosques and Muslim associations, called on other Muslim groups to do the same and “reject all attempts of stewardship,” by French authorities, even as critics suggested its move was motivated by other factors.

Officially launched in December, the Foundation for Islam of France aims to focus on cultural and educational issues, with a separate body overseeing areas like training imams and financing mosques.

Jean-Pierre Chevenement, head of France's Foundati
Jean-Pierre Chevenement, head of France's Foundation for Islam, delivers a speech during a meeting with Muslim community representatives and French government in Paris, Dec. 12, 2016.

Selection draws fire

But the selection of 77-year-old Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a Catholic-raised former interior minister, to head the foundation has stirred controversy.

While Chevenement has opposed calls to ban the Muslim burkini on beaches and the veil in universities, he has also drawn furor 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,” said Slimane Nadour, who oversees communications at the Paris mosque.  “We don't want it imposed.”

In an interview with foreign reporters last November, Chevenement said authorities had appointed him “to deblock the system,” split by competing associations often still allied with their North African and Turkish countries of origin.  The 90-year-old Paris mosque, for example, gets financing from the Algerian government.

Muslims gathers outside a Paris mosque following t
Muslims gathers outside a Paris mosque following the November 2015 terrorist attacks. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

Focus on Muslims

Abdallah Zekri, secretary-general of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, an umbrella body that supports the foundation, suggested Paris mosque head Dalil Boubakeur was upset not to be tapped as its president instead of Chevenement.

“That's the real reason,” why the mosque was pulling out, said Zekri, predicting it would soon change its mind.

The foundation was established amid heightened focus on France's five million Muslims, following several terrorist attacks and the departure of hundreds of French fighters to the Middle East.

Overt expressions of Islam, such as the burkini, have also become flashpoints, as has foreign financing of French mosques.  Such issues have intensified efforts by French authorities to devise a tolerant, state-sanctioned “Islam of France.”

But some Muslim leaders do not believe the state has the answers.

“I never understood the point of a foundation in promoting the Muslim culture,” said Tareq Oubrou, the main imam of Bordeaux.  “There's a Muslim religion, but there is no Muslim culture here. I live in the West, I think in the West, my culture is Western.”

Financing questioned

Efforts to deter foreign financing of mosques are for their part unconstitutional, he claims, pointing to foreign financing for other religious edifices, including the recently opened Russian Orthodox cathedral in Paris.

“What must be controlled is not the financing of mosques,” Oubrou said, “but the discourse and activities inside.”