France bans public Muslim prayers

Adam Sage
MUSLIMS will be banned from praying outdoors in France from today in the latest move by officials to remove Islam from the public sphere.

The ban, announced by the government yesterday, infuriated French Muslim leaders, one of whom accused President Sarkozy's government of treating them like cattle.

They say that Muslims, who pray outdoors only because of a lack of space in mosques in France, feel stigmatised.

But Claude Gueant, the Interior Minister, said that the sight of hundreds of people gathering in the streets of Paris and other cities for Friday prayers was "shocking".

It comes after laws to prohibit pupils from wearing headscarves in schools and women from wearing the niqab, the full Muslim veil, in public.

Mr Gueant described outlawing street prayers as the latest brick in the wall that is shoring up the secular nature of the French state. He said that he had nothing against Islam, but wanted it out of the public eye.

"Street prayers must stop because they hurt the feelings of many of our compatriots who are shocked by the occupation of the public space for a religious practice," he said.

Police could be asked to arrest Muslims who continue to pray in the street, Mr Gueant warned, but officials will initially try to persuade them to move into a mosque.

Debate has focused on the Goutte d'Or district in northern Paris. Dozens and sometimes hundreds of Muslims pray in the surrounding streets.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, was accused of racism when she said that the worship amounted to an "occupation" - a word that for many French is associated with the Nazi invasion during the Second World War.

But the government now appears to be on the same wavelength, with Mr Gueant agreeing that street prayers would "upset" his fellow countrymen.

He said that officials had made available a disused fire station in the Goutte d'Or with room for 2700 people for a rent of €30,000 ($A40,330) a year.

But Muslim leaders said that the site would be open to worshippers only on Fridays.

Mohamed Salah Hamza, imam at a mosque in the Goutte d'Or district, said: "We are not cattle. Our demands have not entirely been satisfied."

He said that he feared worshippers would continue to pray outside.

"I am in an uncomfortable position and I am afraid there will be a climate of anarchy," he said.

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