France: Government participates in mosque funding

France: Government participates in mosque funding

The public authorities provide 30% of necessary funds for building places of worship.

"Today, mayors are the foremost constructors of Mosques," says Dalil Boubakeur, smiling.  The former president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) is thought to have contributed to the institutionalization of Islam in France.  Mosques are sprouting everywhere.  Some 150 projects were launched.  Often marked by excessive size.  Créteil  just inaugurated a cathedral mosque which cost 5 million euro.  With the support of the PS (Socialist Party) official, Laurent Cathala.

"By divine will, it's thanks to the deputy mayor that the project succeeded," says Karim Banissa.  An emphyteutic lease aided the construction by 1 million, just as an annual subsidy of 100,000 euro, officially directed at cultural activities: the mayor used all financial means available to him, without violating the 1905 law which provides that the 'Republic will not recognize nor subsidize any religion."

Imperceptibly, in five years, local officials moved from caution, even distrust of Islam, to consecration.  Certainly, reluctance persists here and there, 'but it's rapidly improving' according to the president of the CFCM, Mohammed Moussaoui.

The mayors involved sometimes wants more control but also to win votes in tight elections.  With the explosion of land prices, granting municipal land proves decisive.  The emphyteutic lease has become the principal tool of mayors, even if the court sometimes punish rents which are too low, seen as explicit financing of religion.  This was the case in Marseille and Montreuil.

Since then the system has become more refined.  Mayors use the additional cultural activities of the mosque, sometimes a simple tearoom, in order to give subsidies.  In total, the public authorities are contributing 30% of the financing of places of worship, according to an estimate by the ministry of the interior.

In the past the authorities already got to an arrangement with the 1905 law to deal with, for example, the arrival of the French Algerians.  With Islam, these small arrangements were amplified and politicized.  Nicolas Sarkozy called for a temporary amendment to the law, to allow 'catching up'.  And accompany the transfer of Islam, now the 'second religion of France'.  If observance concerns only 20% of Muslim families, the religious significance is much larger.  Ramadan never attracted so many followers just like halal and wearing headscarves.  On the holidays, the prayer halls overflow with kneeling believers, who pray on the roads.

This image is fueling speculations about the numbers of missing places of worship.  According to the CFCM we need to go from the current 2000 to 4000.  The mayors participate in this buildup, whatever their political affiliations.

Every big city is making its grand mosque, costing millions of Euros.  And the movement extends to the less urban zones.  Dozens of projects blocked due to lack of funds or lost in the maze of bureaucracy are now being restarted.. because since the creation of the CFCM in 2003 and despite its faults, the status of Islam in the Republic is slowly becoming common.  Especially when foreign finance has been reduced.  If the main countries of origin - Algeria, Morocco, Turkey - still contribute to building places or worship or sending imams, the Gulf monarchies are becoming stingier.

Since September 11, 2001, Saudi Arabia had seen some of its donations blocked by Tracfin, a service of the Ministry of the Economy which monitors financial flows.  Aid also comes now through the great fortunes of the Gulf, confirms Antoine Sfeir, head of the Les Cahiers de l'Orient journal.

In total these funds still represent close to 50%.  Though there's no issue of interference, because in reality, the funding isn't conditioned on ideology, according to the expert.  The more Islam becomes official, the more it is moderate, police officers confirm.  This is the gamble taken by the mayors.

Faced with this triple source of funding - public authorities, foreign donors and collection by the faithful - Dalil Boubakeur warns against excessive size: "A Grand Mosque, it's a financial abyss."

"There are indeed enough places of worship today, entrusted to the Bureau of Religions.  What's needed is an improvement of nearby structures, more than gigantic mosques, which in ten years will be impossible to maintain."  Unless the mayors contribute.

Source: Figaro (French)

See also: Grab-bag, France: Mosques top issue in local elections

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