French faith leaders work to contain any Gaza backlash

January 13, 2009

Whenever the Palestinian issue heats up, the temperature rises in the gritty neighbourhoods the French call the banlieues (suburbs). These areas, best known for the low-cost housing projects that postwar city planners planted out there, are a vibrant and edgy mix of local working class, recent immigrants and minorities now in France for several generations.

(Photo: Police survey housing project in Paris suburb, 1 June 2006/Victor Tonelli)

Among those groups are Muslims and Jews, many of whose families came from the same parts of North Africa. About 7-8 years ago, at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, some of the far more numerous Muslims took out their anger at Israel on their Jewish neighbours. The official reaction against that wave of anti-Semitism was slow in coming back then, but leaders in France today — especially leaders of the main religious groups — seem determined to do their best to head that off this time around.

They have their work cut out for them. According to a French Jewish Students’ Union (UEJF) list (here in French), there have been 46 anti-Semitic acts in France since Dec. 27, when Israel began its bombardment of Gaza.  That includes several firebombs and several Jews beaten by thugs. Muslim and Jewish leaders have already issued several calls for calm. In some cities such as Strasbourg and Lyon, they have joined the mayor and their Catholic colleagues. After meeting President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday evening, the national heads of the Muslim, Jewish and Catholic communities said they would produce a joint appeal soon. See my story on this here.

The impromptu news conference in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace showed how delicate this project can be. Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Catholic archbishop of Paris, could simply say a few words about peace and not have to explain too much more.

(Photo: From left, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, CFCM head Mohamed Moussaoui and Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, 12 Jan 2009/Charles Platiau)

But Mohamed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), and Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim were grilled about what they and their communities should do to avoid more violence. One reporter badgered them to say they would march together at the head of a parade for peace that, until now at least, has neither been suggested nor organised by anyone. Both thoughtful and soft-spoken men, Moussaoui and Bernheim made sure they showed enough support for “their” sides in the Gaza conflict without burning the shaky bridges between their communities here.

Moussaoui has already come under fire in the Muslim community for allegedly getting too close to the leadership of the CRIF umbrella group of Jewish organisations. He and CRIF President Richard Prasquier met last November and suggested creating a liaison committee to work together to defend human rights. They agreed to “create a common front against anti-Semitiism, racism and Islamophobia.” But when the Gaza operation started, the influential Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF) cast doubt on any further cooperation and the CRIF criticised the UOIF’s call for Muslims to protest and imams to preach “to make the faithful sensitive to the just Palestinian cause.”

The UOIF even issued a fatwa saying that Muslims who miss their afternoon and dusk prayers because they are demonstrating could say them at midday and evening to compensate.

(Photo: Protester in Strasbourg, 10 Jan 2009/Vincent Kessler)

“Peaceful demonstrations to support just causes such as that of Palestine are an act of adoration and connection with God,” it said. A more militant group called the Party of Muslims of France, based in Strasbourg, has been holding daily demos in the centre of the Alsatian city which have ended with occasional unrest.

It’s hard to say what if any connection this rhetoric has with the actual anti-Semitic acts that have been reported so far. Police have not issued any official overall figures for attacks. French mayors interviewed by Le Monde say the mood is strained but they think their local dialogues with youths and with religious leaders have kept the situation from deteriorating further.

Cardinal Vingt-Trois said the joint appeal by national religious leaders was due “in the coming days” but if any delay comes, it would probably not be from the community that has the least at stake in this story.

P.S. The last paragraph does not mean that only Muslims are responsible for the mentioned anti-Semitic attacks or that none were committed by people with a Christian background. There may well be non-Muslim anti-Semites who take advantage of the current climate to vent their hate. Since there are no official statistics on the perpertrators, it is hard to say with certainty who is committing these acts. But the general assumption among police, politicians, religious leaders and media is that all or almost all of these cases are in the “Muslim-vs-Jew” category. Vingt-Trois plays less of a role here — despite the impression the photo of the three religious leaders above might give — because the majority is mostly sidelined in this story.

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