Paris: Créteil municipality helps builds mosque

While governments and citizens across Europe oppose minarets on their skylines, a French city is offering a rare example of accommodating its Muslims by helping build a mosque complex complete with a restaurant, bookstore, library, exhibition hall and study rooms.

"We wanted the mosque to be built where everyone could see it," Laurent Cathala, the mayor of Créteil commune in the southeastern suburbs of Paris, told the Washington Post on Sunday, December 9.

"We didn't want to hide it," added the Socialist Party member who can watch the construction from his 11th-floor office.

The nearly-finished building, with its 81-foot minaret and soaring dome, will accommodate more than 2,500 worshipers.

Costing $7.4 million, it stands on a knoll overlooking Créteil 's picturesque lake, the city hall and the police station.

With nearly $1.5 million help from the city council, the new mosque is coming complete with a cultural center -- the cafe, exhibition center, bathhouse, bookstore and study rooms.

It aims to meet the religious needs of Muslims who make up nearly 20 percent of Creteil's 88,000 population.

Cathala, who has been mayor for three decades, sees the mosque as part of the demographic evolution of the sprawling town of white high-rise apartments, glass office complexes and American-style, boxy suburban malls.

"If you're for social justice, you can't acknowledge part of the population and not acknowledge another part -- especially concerning their religion."

The city has long lacked a single stately mosque, leaving thousands of its Muslims praying in three tiny makeshift prayer halls -- none with a capacity of more than 200 people.

"This mosque is more than just an acknowledgment of our religion," believes Karim Benaissa, head of the Creteil Union of Muslim Associations.

"It's an acknowledgment of a city towards its citizens."

France is home to some 6-7 million Muslims, the biggest Muslim minority in Europe.

The Interior Ministry has identified 1,500 places of worship but only about 400 are stately mosques.

Most are temporary prayer halls in gymnasiums, unused shops or apartment house basements.


But the road for Creteil's mosque, be one of France's largest, was not paved with roses.

Anti-immigrant city council members have protested the use of public funds to build the cultural center.

"Jews pay for their synagogues, Catholics pay for their churches," said Lysiane Choukroun, 59, a council member from the National Republican Movement Party (MNR), whose members have opposed mosque construction in several French cities.

"Why should Muslims be helped by Creteil taxpayers?"

In the middle of fundraising activities, the local bank being used by Creteil's Muslim association closed its account, giving no reason.

"It was discrimination," said 44-year-old Benaissa, who moved to France from Algeria at age 18 to go to college.

Additionally, authorities recently pressed charged against Creteil's imam Ilyes Hacene for making inflammatory comments in speeches between 2000-2006.

They are trying to strip him of his citizenship and deport him.

Cathala believes the accusations are politically motivated.

"I was astonished," he recalled. "It took them seven years to come forward with these charges?"


The struggle of Creteil's mosque is not uncommon but rather reflects a growing climate across Europe.

"Anti-mosque initiatives are the new mobilizers of the right wing," Riem Spielhaus, a specialist in European-Islamic issues at Berlin's Humboldt University, told the Washington Post.

"The mosques are symbols of the permanent presence of Muslims. They are investing in bricks. They are going to stay."

Muslims across the continent, who have long prayed in garages, old factories and basements, are facing campaigns against building stately mosques.

Last week, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel angered Muslims after telling a congress of her conservative Christian Democrats that "mosque cupolas" should not be higher than
"church steeples".

In Germany too, a plan by the Turkish Islamic Union to build a mosque in Cologne has met fierce opposition on claims that it would be too big for the city.

In London, a plan for a grand mosque next to the 2012 Olympics site is challenged by critics as the biggest symbol of "Islamic colonization of England."

Far-right groups also proposed this year to ban minarets in Switzerland.

And even in France, the far-right MNR won two court cases this year against giving pieces of land at low prices to Muslims to build two mosques in the suburbs of Montreuil and in Marseille, both having a sizable Muslim minority.

Source: Islam Online (English)

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