Debate sparks fear for Catholics

New bid to balance religious freedom and the law meddles with 106 years of tradition

30 April 2011

AFTER 106 years of the secular state, Catholics in France are uneasy at the recent debate on the role of religion, especially Islam, as they say that they have been heavily involved in continuous debate since the law on the secular state was passed.

The debate, organised by the governing UMP, came up with a list of 26 proposals to balance religious freedoms and the law which were greeted by a chorus of protests, confusion, cries of impracticality and, occasionally, support.

Covering areas from a prisoner’s vegetarian lasagne and a ban on parents wearing crucifixes on school trips to a rethink on Halal meat, they led one commentator, from the National Secular Society in the UK, to say French Muslims would find the proposals hard to accept, as many seemed targeted at them.

That was made clear by the national organisation for Muslims CFCM (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman) which declined an invitation to join the debate because it felt the timing was bad: “Right now, in a context of growing support for the right-wing, increased attacks on Muslims, a forthcoming presidential election and a sharply divisive debate on national identity, we don’t think this is the right time for this sort of debate.”

They are still studying the propositions and formulating their responses, so did not want to comment on them in detail.

Bernard Podvin, the spokesman for the Catholic church in France confirmed that it attended the debate. It did not contribute and has made no statement since.

Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner, a religion journalist for the (unofficial) Catholic newspaper La Croix said: “The 1905 law on secularism was a blow for Catholics, but we are now completely at ease with it. We didn’t wait for Sarkozy; Catholics are continually thinking about our relationship to the state and how we can do things better, so there’s really no need to say we need to start from scratch.”

She said they did not “stick our heads above the parapet” and demand to be listened to more than other interest groups, as they already sat on numerous working groups about church and state.

“There are still questions that are asked, like is it right that mairies maintain the churches when fewer people are going to church?, but they are continually under debate and are not insurmountable.”

She added: “In recent weeks a minority have said the Catholic church must not be treated like the rest because it’s gone much further down the road of laicity. We should not put what a priest says on the same level as an imam, who does not have 106 years of secularism behind him.”

Days after the debate the fears of the Muslim CFCM were shown to be well-founded when a pig’s head was dumped on the steps of the mosque in Reims. The CFCM deplored the desecration saying the number of xenophobic attacks had doubled 2009 to 2010.

The main thrust of the 26 proposals was to get a vote in parliament to uphold the 1905 law separating church and state; clarify the multiple laws and legal rulings on religion, and create a new code of law for religious freedom in the workplace, public spaces and the home.

There were also measures to reaffirm the separation of church and state such as teaching children about religion and secularism (and similarly police officers, teachers, medical and council staff about the secular state); extending secular rules to people working with the civil service (parents going on school trips could no longer wear crucifixes) and banning people from objecting to government workers on the grounds of sex or religion (such as demanding a male or female doctor).

They would also stop people from demanding specific treatment from public bodies on religious grounds (moving exam dates away from religious holidays or providing vegetarian meals for prisoners) unless they can be accommodated easily, and stopping parents from taking children out of science or PE lessons.

Other proposals guaranteed religious freedom including allowing religious organisations to get very long term leases on land for projects; insisting that foreign and local funds for the construction of religious buildings should be open for scrutiny; banning street preaching, allowing religious plots in cemeteries, and looking again at the ritual slaughter of animals to ensure that suffering is limited.

Political tug of war will not help secularism in France

THERE was no doubt for Terry Sanderson of the UK National Secular Society that the debate’s propositions were about Islam in France.

“The proposal about cash funding from abroad for example is about funds from Saudi Arabia funding the building of mosques in France in return for the teaching of a particular type of Islam. So this is an attempt to eradicate a certain type of extremism.”

He says it will be hard for French Muslims to accept, particularly as the state is obliged to maintain Catholic churches built before 1905.

“The government is trying to accommodate Islam within a secular framework. It’s difficult with a demanding and assertive religion like Islam, I mean patients demanding women doctors for example and Halal meat in prison. In a secular society, it just isn’t possible to do that.”

With an extreme version of Islam having gained a foothold in the UK, particularly in London, it was understandable France would want to avoid that: “These proposals are a real attempt by the French to retain their republicanism in the face of this religion which in its ultimate, most extreme form, demands that it be the state. Islam doesn’t recognise secularism.”

He feels the problem is that the government has fallen into a political tug of war. With the far right making progress in the polls, he says, “the mainstream parties increasingly feel they have to play the immigrant card. But that won’t help secularism... it will bring it into disrepute.”

But he is far from wanting to see a clamp on the right to worship. “It is a pillar of secularism and every human rights charter ever written that people have the freedom to worship, and to gather together to worship. But it has to be within the law.”

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