In France, tensions flare over proposed sale of church to Muslim group
When the Rev. Alain Krauth preached to his dwindling flock at Mass last Sunday, the subject was real estate. But it was also Christian charity, tolerance and, indirectly, the gnawing malaise in France over an increasingly visible Muslim minority.
The issue was Saint-Eloi's, a graceless 1950s-vintage church on the edge of this declining French city 150 miles south of Paris. With six churches to maintain and fewer faithful every year, Roman Catholic authorities decided they could no longer afford Saint-Eloi's. It must be sold, Krauth lamented, and if one of the prospective buyers is a peaceful Muslim association looking for a new mosque, then so be it.
"If moderate Muslims buy Saint-Eloi's, we can only be happy that the Muslims of Vierzon are able to celebrate their religion," he said in an interview explaining his sermon. "If on the other hand they were extremists, that would be another question, knowing that there are extremists in all religions."
But Krauth's open-mindedness was not shared by all. After an item in the local newspaper, Le Berry Republicain, the murmurs began. Cafe conversations proliferated. Krauth said he got a dozen calls. Some were polite, others not. His office received about 20 e-mails. Some commended him; others asked how he could betray a place of Christian worship to the Muslims.
Comments popped up on the Internet, meanwhile, some of them raw. One suggested throwing a pig into the church to discourage Muslims from making the purchase. Alerted, reporters and cameramen from Paris showed up to ask questions about the rise of Islam. Before long the proposed sale of Saint-Eloi's escalated into the latest example of France's difficulty in dealing with a growing minority of people born into families of Muslim tradition.
The Interior Ministry and most academic specialists have estimated the community in France numbers at least 5 million, the largest in Europe. While less than 10 percent of the population, Muslims often end up segregated into suburban neighborhoods, where Muslim customs such as veils for women and fasting for the holy month of Ramadan become the norm, eclipsing France's long-established Christian traditions. (continue reading...)