Felix Corley reports from Paris on whether the rise of a radical brand of Islam presents a threat to the Church FRANC!: HAS MOVED far since the days when it could be called "the eldest daughter of the Church". The Catholic Church has long been in decline. The second largest faith is now Islam, with some four million adherents, and is newly assertive, a fact that traditionally secular France has yet to come to terms with. Local government officials especially with an eye on elections routinely obstruct or delay the construction of mosques to serve the community. The state's schools avowedly secular refuse to admit female pupils wearing headscarves.
There is a widespread fear, even among the educated, that France's very identity as a "Western" and Christian" nation is under threat. Nightmare scenarios envisage the number of Muslims overtaking that of Christian Frenchmen within people's lifetime.
Behind these fears lurks the constant image of an Islamic takeover in Algeria.
Jean-Claude Barreau, a former Catholic priest who is now the advise 7 on immigration to the French interior minister Charles Pasqua, is a leading advocate of keeping Muslims in their place.
"Islam has a place in France," he declares, "provided it is willing to stay as discreet as the other religions. But the Islamists are coming as colonisers." It is Barreau's belief that the Muslims with their higher birth rate than the French are seizing the chance to take over the country.
His views are regarded with horror by Catholic priests involved in the dialogue with Islam. Fr Gilles Couvreur, who heads the Secretariat for Relations with Islam, absolutely rejects Barreau's view that Islam is a threat. "The Muslims in France deeply respect French laws and values," he declares.
Fr Couvreur distinguishes three sections of the French Muslim community. "There is political racialism, which uses the cover of Islam to take power with violence. There is Muslim fundamentalism, which believes it can find all truth in a literal reading of the Koran and defy modern society.Then there is the Islamic faith which most Muslims in France want to live, a faith that is tolerant and moderate. These Muslims want a secular society".
The Secretariat was set up 22 years ago by the bishops when they realised that the many immigrants then coming in from France's former colonies in North Africa were here to stay. Basing its work on the Vatican Council declaration on non-Christian faiths, Nostra Aetate, the secretariat is at the forefront of CatholicMuslim dialogue in France. It also educates Catholics about Islam and works to promote religious freedom for Muslims in France.
While Fr Couvreur encountered Islam during 25 years as a parish priest in one of the many immigrant slum districts on the outskirts of Paris, another key church figure in Catholic-Muslim relations gained his experience of Islam in North Africa.
White Father Michael Lelong was a missionary in Algeria for twenty years. "Some of those who have been murdered in the violence in Algeria were my friends," he notes sadly.
Like Fr Couvreur he stresses that the Koran forbids attacks on innocent people and that the violence plaguing Algeria has been condemned by many Muslims. "But this violence is not a reason to stop contacts on the contrary we must have dialogue with the Islamists."
Although he believes that dialogue between Catholics and Muslims is now wellestablished in France, he is critical of the lack of attention given it by the Church hierarchy. He notes that while Cardinal Lustiger of Paris and the late Cardinal Decourtray of Lyons spoke up often for dialogue with Judaism, they were much less vocal about the need for dialogue with Muslims.
Fr Lelong is even more forthright than Fr Couvreur in his condemnation of what he sees as the racist views lying behind the utterances of Barreau and others, especially the view that the Italians, the Spanish and the Portuguese can integrate while those from North Africa can't. He rejects their assertion that Islam in France represents a threat to Judeo-Christian values.
"I consider such language unacceptable," he declares bluntly. He points out that it took several centuries of suffering for the Jews to be accepted in France. "Now It's Islam and the Muslims of our country who should and can be welcomed, recognised and respected."
While Fr Couvreur declines to get involved in the controversy over links with the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front declaring that the future of Algeria must be decided by the Algerians Fr Lelong is strong supporter of the mediation efforts of the
Catholic Sant-Egidio community, which have brought together representatives of the FIS and other Algerian opposition parties in Rome. He believes there are responsible people in the FIS and that dialogue will help to sideline the extremists.
But the Algerian conflict may yet take its toll in France.
Priests working alongside North African communities have been told that radical Islamists have been infiltrating the French Islamic community fast. With high unemployment and few prospects, the young are increasingly drawn away from the secular Islam that their parents have practised since their arrival.
Despite the rising tension, both Fr Couvreur and Fr Lelong are pledged to continue promoting dialogue. Whether France's secular state can cope with racial Islam and what role the Catholic Church will play as religious issues come to the forefront of the political agenda remain to be seen.