The rector of Paris’ Grand Mosque prompted fury and a viral petition when he casually suggested last week that empty churches be converted into mosques, to meet the needs of France’s 5 million Muslims.
Noting that a community that size requires about 4,000 mosques, compared to the 2,000 in France today, Dalil Boubakeur remarked that perhaps unused churches could be converted, reasoning “It’s the same God, the rites are like neighbors or brothers.”
However, most French do not appear to agree: according to the French Institute of Public Opinion, 67% would oppose such a plan.
Boubakeur quickly clarified that there were no actual plans to recycle churches, but his comment led 25 academic and political leaders, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, to draw up a petition against the idea, which conservative paper Valeurs Actuelles dubbed “Touche pas à mon église,” or “Hands off my church.” As of July 15, they had added 40,000 signatures.
Radio France Internationale, and Tom Heneghan of Religion News Service, claim that the controversy shows politics in flux as the 2017 presidential election takes shape. Explicit Islamophobia has usually been limited to the far-right National Front party, but now, particularly in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo office attacks, and rising support for the National Front, some politicians are revising their attitudes towards Islam. Sarkozy, for example, who may be angling to return to the presidential office, has recently discouraged schools from serving halal meals.
Both journalists also note that, despite the avid defense of France’s churches, only 5% of French citizens are weekly church-goers; almost 50% never attend. RFI quotes the poll’s director, Jerome Fourquet, as saying “‘Even if France is deeply de-Christianised since the 1960s, there is a real commitment … to the Christian roots and their symbols.’”
The head of the country’s bishops conference’s interreligious affairs offered a slightly different perspective. As Heneghan writes, Bishop Dubost
would prefer that disused churches become mosques rather than restaurants. The best way to defend them from that fate, he remarked, was to attend Mass in them regularly.