Police have shut down makeshift Muslim prayer rooms at Paris' two main airports after they became a focus of intense scrutiny following allegations by a far-right politician that Islamic activists were compromising security.
Officials insisted there was no threat, but the prayer sites set up by Muslim workers in cloakrooms, depots and other areas at Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports were quietly shuttered. There are three official prayer rooms - still open - at each of the two main Paris airports, just as there are chapels for Christians and synagogues for Jews.
Officials had vehemently denied allegations in a book by Philippe de Villiers, published in May, that clandestine prayer rooms honeycombed the corridors underneath airport runways and that Islamists were poised to put the premises under Muslim Sharia law.
Villiers, a presidential hopeful who opposes immigration by Muslims, claimed to have based his book, "The Mosques of Roissy," on intelligence reports. Many saw the book as a bid for attention. It caused a stir and briefly climbed the bestseller list.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, considered the leading conservative presidential candidate, visited Charles de Gaulle airport in April, after book excerpts were published, and insisted measures to strengthen security were under way.
About 70 airport employees were being let go because they weren't "zero-risk," he said. He didn't give details about who made that judgment.
Officials contacted by The AP insisted the unofficial prayer sites posed no risk and said employees in sensitive areas are carefully vetted.
Eight prayer rooms were shut down at Orly airport, said Yvon Caratero, deputy chief of the Air and Frontier Police for Orly, calling it a "precautionary" measure.
The daily Le Parisien reported last week that some 30 prayer rooms were shut at de Gaulle.
Hazem El-Shaffei, the imam, or Muslim leader, for Charles de Gaulle and Orly, confirmed unofficial prayer rooms were shut at de Gaulle but didn't say how many.
He said by telephone he wasn't opposed to shutting them, noting working Muslims can group their prayers in the evening. But he stressed the prayer rooms were "not a question of any threat."
Caratero, the police official, said, "It was a problem that really wasn't one. There were no meetings to talk about Islam. There was no imam preaching. It didn't present a particular risk."
He said authorities had "tolerated" the makeshift sites used by Muslims, who pray five times a day.
"People came, prayed and folded up their (prayer) rugs," Caratero said. The airports are major employers on the north and south peripheries of Paris where numerous Muslims live and work.
Source: Easy Bourse (English)