Should French Be Afraid of Muslims Using Churches to Worship?

About five years ago when I moved to New York from France I started searching for a Muslim community to connect to and relate to. I found the Islamic Center of NYU: a young, diverse and vibrant Muslim community. Yet, what surprised me at that time is that they were using the basement of a church – Church Saint Joseph in Greenwich Village - for their friday prayers and their evening programs during the month of Ramadan. As a French expat, freshly arrived in the United States, Muslims praying in a church or its basement was unheard of.

France has the highest Europe's Muslim population – between 5 and 6 millions - but lacks mosques or places of worship for Muslims. It is not a rare scene to see Muslim worshippers performing their congregational prayer on Fridays in front of mosques, on the sidewalk due to lack of space. As a result, the sight of Muslims praying on the streets in large numbers have often been used by right and far-right elected officials to “alert" on the rise of Islam in France.

So when I came across the news this week that more than 40 000 French have signed a rousing “Hands off my church” petition -”Touche pas a mon eglise” in French -, it sent me back to five years ago when I was in awe that some U.S. churches were lending their space to Muslims so they can use as a place of worship.

The petition, initially signed by 25 conservative politicians and intellectuals, including former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, was launched last week after the head of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, said that Muslims needed to double the number of mosques around the country to 4,000 and that using empty churches could help them do that.

Unsurprisingly, it did not take long before a backlash and for Boubakeur to rush out a statement on the same day saying “there is neither a desire nor a willingness to do this now.” Only the Roman Catholic Church, he said, is authorized to speak about the fate of its empty churches.

In a country, like France, it is still inconceivable for many to share places of worship with other religions which explains my surprise, five years ago, when I saw Muslims praying in a church in New York.

Too often, Islam is either seen as a religion barely compatible with the values of the French republic - and it is being fought on the grounds of secularism - or it is seen as a threat that should be neutralized.

The suspicion towards the Muslim community in France has drastically increased after two French Muslim men gunned down 17 people in an attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris last January and a third one killed several others in a hostage taking of a kosher supermarket.

Yet, hostility towards Muslims goes beyond suspicion. A recent report, published by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), documents a 23.5 percent rise in "Islamophobic acts" - physical assaults, verbal abuse, and damage to property - since the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

While interfaith efforts and acts of solidarity between religious communities should be encouraged in order to promote understanding and tolerance towards each other, French intellectuals and politicians are encouraging suspicion and division in order to satisfy their political agenda and ideals.

By doing so, they are exactly serving the purpose of those who use violence in the name of a religion. They should, maybe for once, look to the other side of the Atlantic and foster interfaith efforts such as the ones developed by religious communities in the U.S.

One recent example is a crowd funded campaign launched by Faatimah Knight after several black churches were set in fire in the wake of Dylann Roof's mass shooting in a Charleston church, in South Carolina.

The 23-year-old black Muslim student has raised, so far, more than $87,000 from over 1800 donors to help rebuild Catholic places of worship.

As the month of Ramadan is coming to end, I have taken the time to reflect on the hostility faced by Muslims worldwide as a result, most likely, of the current human madness ravaging countries like Syria and Iraq but also beyond as witnessed recently in Tunisia, Koweit and even France. In the Holy Quran that I read again during the past 29 nights, I did not find any answer to warrant these crimes.

The only answer I came up with is they want us divided and weak. They want us to resent each other and fight one another. Divide and rule is their strategy. We can only defeat them by being strongly united.

So my dear France, take a step back to reflect for a moment.

French Muslims are not your enemies, we are your partners and allies.