French imams, chaplains seek ways to combat Islamist radicalisation

PARIS Thu Jun 19, 2014 4:50pm EDT

Apolin Pepiezep (C), lawyer of Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, the French national who is suspected of the shooting attack in the Brussels Jewish Museum last month that left four people dead, speaks to the journalists after a hearing for his client's extradition outside the Appeal Court of Versailles, near Paris, June 12, 2014.  REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Apolin Pepiezep (C), lawyer of Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, the French national who is suspected of the shooting attack in the Brussels Jewish Museum last month that left four people dead, speaks to the journalists after a hearing for his client's extradition outside the Appeal Court of Versailles, near Paris, June 12, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

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PARIS (Reuters) - Islamic prayer leaders and prison chaplains in France, jolted by a French Islamist's killing spree at the Brussels Jewish Museum, have begun discussing ways to better fight the decimalization of young Muslims here.

About 30 imams from southeastern France, meeting in Avignon on Wednesday, said action was urgently needed because about 300 young French Muslims are reported to have left their region to fight alongside jihadist forces in Syria.

Their meeting, which debated practical options such as surveillance cameras in mosques to spot jihadi recruiters and centrally written sermons for Friday prayers, will be followed by further sessions in other regions in the coming months.

Muslim chaplains in prisons, a fertile ground for recruiting young men to Islamist radicalism, met in Paris last weekend to urge the state to expand their ranks by helping train them and then paying them basic salaries for working with prisoners.

"There are young men in my neighborhood leaving for Syria. We need a joint effort to fight against that," Farid Darrouf, an imam from Montpellier, told French radio in Avignon.

"We've had 300 people leave for Syria from PACA," said Carpentras imam Khalid Belkhadir, referring to the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region in southeastern France. "That really set the alarm bells ringing for us."

The flow of European Muslim radicals to Syria and the May 24 killing of four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum, presumably by a 29-year-old French Muslim who did five stints in French jails before fighting in Syria, has alarmed European officials.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere both warned this week against the danger presented by European jihadists who return home from fighting in Syria.

France's five million Muslims, the largest Islamic minority in Europe, are overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens opposed to radicalism. But their community is divided and nationwide initiatives like the imams' meetings are rare.

JOINT PLAN OF ACTION

"Muslims must act to stop this disfiguration of the image of Islam and Muslims," said Mohammed Moussaoui, former head of France's national Muslim council and leader of the French Mosques Union group, which sponsored the Avignon meeting.

Noting that more than a million French Muslims attended Friday prayers, he suggested more vigorous preaching against radicalism. "On certain issues, why not have just one joint sermon, so the message comes across loud and clear?" he asked.

Moussaoui's group, part of the large network of Moroccan-backed mosques in France, plans five more meetings of imams in other regions to work out a plan of action in the autumn.

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said last week that prison police had identified 90 inmates as potential radical Islamists among thousands of Muslims behind bars in France.

The 169 Islamic prison chaplains complain they cannot keep up with demand from Muslim prisoners, who often make up half or more of all inmates, while there are many more Catholic and Protestant chaplains for far fewer Christians seeking guidance.

They also say churches supplement the meager sums their clerics earn from the prisons, while Muslims have no such institutions to help them and cannot live on the low pay.

Lacking trained chaplains to discuss their religious questions, some young Muslim inmates are easy prey for recruiters preaching radical politics with their Islam.

"Our presence in prisons is useful," they said in a statement after their weekend meeting. "It's time that our conditions of work are guaranteed ... (with) no differences between the chaplaincies."

(Reporting by Tom Heneghan; editing by Andrew Roche)

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