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 Friday, 20 December, 2002, 12:04 GMT
France creates Muslim council
Men pray at a Muslim conference held earlier this year
The council will bring relations with Muslims into the open
French officials and Muslim leaders have agreed to the creation of the first body to represent the country's five million Muslims - Europe's largest community.

What we should be afraid of is Islam gone astray, garage Islam, basement Islam, underground Islam

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy
The breakthrough comes after several years of efforts to formalise relations between Muslims and the government.

These efforts were spurred on by the 11 September attacks in the United States.

A final round of talks began on Thursday near Paris after Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy persuaded the country's three main Islamic organisations to settle their differences and work together.

The new body will be called the French Council for the Muslim Religion, and will be the equivalent of the UK's Muslim Council.

Liberal Islam

Analysts say the government wants to encourage a home-grown, liberal version of Islam, and to dispel hostility to Islam by bringing it into the open.

"What we should be afraid of is Islam gone astray, garage Islam, basement Islam, underground Islam. It is not the Islam of the mosques, open to the light of day," Mr Sarkozy said last week.

He was expected to preside over the conclusion of the talks on Friday, which have been attended by representatives of seven Muslim federations and five large mosques.

The council is equivalent to a similar body created for Jews 200 years ago.

New mosques

It is expected to be headed by Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Paris mosque.

Its 11 members will be part-elected and part-appointed, to ensure "a balance of views", the text of the agreement says.

Its tasks will include arranging chaplaincies in the army and prisons, acquiring burial sites, delivering "halal" meat certificates, organising the pilgrimage to Mecca and building new mosques and prayer halls.

Despite the size of its Muslim population, France has few large-scale mosques.

Most worshippers make do with small and sometimes dingy prayer rooms, leading to widespread allegations of discrimination.

See also:

25 Jan 02 | Europe
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