- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

PARIS — As France celebrates the centennial of the 1905 law that separated church and state by banning public spending on religious causes, some politicians and intellectuals are asking if changes are in order to monitor the origin of funds used to build mosques.

“After dividing France at the time of its adoption, the republican law of 1905 on separating church and state has gradually led to a secular calm that has united the entire French people,” President Jacques Chirac said in December 2003. It “has shown its wisdom and has met the approval of all religions and schools of thought,” he added.

Under this law, the French Republic does not recognize any religion.

In 1905, all expenditures related to religious activity were deleted from the national and local budgets, putting an end to the Concordat of 1802 adopted by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Under the Concordat, four religions — Roman Catholicism, the Lutheran Church, the Reformed Church and Judaism — were officially recognized by the French state and granted funds from public coffers. But as the prevalent religion in France, Catholicism was generally considered the real state religion, particularly influential in education from primary school through university level.

The idea of separating church and state emerged during the last quarter of the 19th century and France’s evolution from a kingdom through various republics to an empire, as more and more lawmakers sought to eliminate public funding granted each year by the Parliament to recognized religious groups.

“Those who are fighting our republican institutions are leaders of Catholic organizations: Clericalism is the enemy,” famed politician and statesman Leon Gambetta told the French House of Representatives in 1877.

1882 school law

The issue of the separation of church and state divided France, as many commentators said at the time. On one side were the republicans, who wanted to end the overwhelming influence in France that the Roman Catholic Church enjoyed under the former monarchy. On the other side were conservative Catholics who sought to preserve the church’s longtime role as arbiter of morality in public and private life.

The continuation of a republican regime and the place the church would have in it were at stake. The first victory for secularism occurred in 1882, when a law establishing public, nonreligious schools was adopted.

Though the Catholic Church had for centuries controlled the content of what was taught, the 1882 law made public education “free” — meaning financed by the government — secular and obligatory, but it also permitted private schools operated by churches, synagogues and other religious institutions.

In public schools, religious classes were replaced by a course on morality and civic responsibility. Syllabuses changed, religious symbols such as crosses were removed and nonreligious institutions were created for the training of teachers.

Vatican tie severed

“Religious instruction belongs to the families and to the Church, moral instruction to the school,” wrote the author of the 1882 law, Jules Ferry, in a letter sent to all primary-school teachers.

But the defenders of secularism had to wait more than 20 years to see a total separation of church and state. After months of debate in Parliament, the law was finally passed on Dec. 9, 1905.

Meanwhile, diplomatic relations between France and the Vatican had been broken.

“We condemn the bill adopted in France on the separation of Church and State as deeply insulting to God. France officially disowns God when it states that the Republic does not recognize any sect,” Pope Pius X declared in a famous encyclical.

The Catholic Church in France did not accept a compulsory inventory of its assets, which would have meant recognition of the law on secular pre-eminence, until 1921 when it officially recognized the 1905 law.

Relations resume

Diplomatic relations between France and the Vatican were then re-established and most French Catholics adapted to the republican secular regime. A single exception remains: In three districts of Alsace-Moselle in eastern France, which belonged to Germany until 1918, the Concordat still prevails.

There, the four religions recognized in 1802 by Napoleon still receive French government funding and the bishops of Strasbourg and Metz are nominated by the French president in collaboration with the Vatican.

But a century after its adoption, the 1905 law is again being challenged by some politicians and intellectuals.

Due to mass immigrations in the 1960s at the end of French colonialism, which brought to France hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, mostly from North Africa, Islam — practically nonexistent in France at the start of the 20th century, has become its No. 2 faith in terms of population numbers early in the 21st century.

Muslim total estimated

No official figures exist on the number of Muslims in France, because under secularism, religious affiliation cannot be among the questions asked in a census. But according to various counts and estimates, there are between 3 million and 5 million Muslims in France, which has 60 million inhabitants.

The 1905 law forbids the state to fund the construction of places of worship — which is not a problem for the Catholic Church, most of whose churches in France were built before 1905.

“Since Muslims don’t have such buildings, should not we help them acquire or build some?” asked Rene Remond, a historian, in an academic article about reforming the 1905 law.

The present situation obliges Muslims to practice their religion under inferior conditions, and, above all, encourages them to seek foreign funding to build their houses of worship, which may favor the development of a fundamentalist form of Islam in France.

Aid for new mosques

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was the first to bring this question to the national agenda. In a book titled “The Republic, Religions and Hope,” published last October, Mr. Sarkozy raised the issue of a reform that would allow the French government to help pay for mosque construction in order to limit the influence of foreign countries, particularly Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

“The Muslim community has not received any patrimonial heritage since it is a new community in this country. Besides, it has fewer financial possibilities than the other ones … Therefore, rich donors are more likely to come from a foreign country than from the national community,” he wrote.

“What is dangerous is not minarets, but basements and garages that hide clandestine places of worship. Thus we must choose between mosques, where we know that the rules of the republic are respected, and secret places where extremism has been developing for too long,” wrote Mr. Sarkozy, currently the conservative front-runner for the 2007 presidential election.

A contentious issue

But Mr. Chirac, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and many other politicians, conservatives and liberals, do not support Mr. Sarkozy’s call for a reform of the 1905 law.

“We should not bring into question one of ‘the pillars of the temple,’” Mr. Chirac said last fall. “We can solve this problem perfectly well, find solutions,” without changing the law, he insisted.

This is why he backs Mr. de Villepin’s initiative of a “foundation for the works of Islam,” that would receive private funds, notably from abroad, to finance mosque construction.

According to aides of Mr. de Villepin, these funds would be handled “with transparency and traceability.” The proposals also involve the training of imams — prayer leaders at mosques.

“The project we are introducing simply aims at allowing imams to receive help in order to fully master the French language and to integrate themselves in a society whose principles they may not be familiar with,” former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said in February.

Muslim remain wary

In June, the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court, agreed to the creation of the foundation, but neither the prime minister’s proposal nor Mr. Sarkozy’s enjoys the support of the whole Islamic community in France.

For Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Muslim Institute of the Paris Mosque, the risk is that the French government may partly control the functioning of mosques and Islamic organizations.

“The downsides of public funding for mosque construction and training imams are more numerous than the advantages,” he told Le Monde newspaper in October 2004.

Moreover, the centennial of the law on secularity is taking place in a tense context, as when it was adopted in 1905. Only a few symposiums have been organized this year, and the official ceremonies that will be held in December will take place in a solemn atmosphere.

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