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French bid to woo imams

Paris: Muslim prayer leaders in France are to be offered university training in law, civics, history and culture from next autumn as part of a bid to build a moderate ``French Islam'' that respects human rights and the Republican code, said the Interior Minister, Dominique de Villepin. The courses, available initially at two university campuses in Paris including the Sorbonne, will be accompanied by intensive French language lessons if necessary. Both current and future imams will be encouraged to enrol, Mr. de Villepin said in a newspaper interview. ``Today, of the 1,200 imams who practise in our country, 75 per cent are not French and one-third do not even speak our language,'' Mr. de Villepin told the daily Le Parisien. ``This is not acceptable. In France we should have French imams, speaking French.'' Though the courses will not be compulsory, a spokeswoman said most imams would be ``strongly advised'' to take them. Official student status and temporary residence permits available to those who take up the offer, as well as the possibility of a grant, should also prove an inducement, she added. ``This is all part of our ambition to make France something of a model in Europe in terms of the organisation of the Muslim faith and its assimilation into society,'' she said. Most of France's estimated 5 million Muslim community, Europe's largest, is of North African origin, and many imams come directly from Arab countries to preach in France. Their religious training is increasingly likely to have been in fundamentalist Islamic principles that clash with secular French laws.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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