France ban on Muslim street prayers comes into effect

(AFP) – Paris:  A ban on praying in French streets came into effect on Friday, with thousands of the nation’s Muslim faithful being moved to temporary alternative spaces for their day of prayer.

From Paris to Marseille, Friday’s midday prayers will be led from disused barracks or other temporary buildings, after the question of Islam’s visibility became a political issue under right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy.

France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, this year banned the face-covering burqa and earlier this week Interior Minister Claude Gueant warned that “from September 16 there will be no more prayers in the street.”

“If anyone happens to be recalcitrant we will put an end to it,” Gueant said, suggesting police could be brought in.

“Prayers in the street are unacceptable, a direct attack on the principle of secularism,” Gueant told AFP last month, citing the government’s defence of the republic’s secular values as reason for the new policies.

In Paris, a former barracks just north of the city limits has been designated the new prayer area for those living in the multi-ethnic Goutte d’Or neighbourhood, around two kilometres (over a mile) away.

The praying faithful at the Goutte d’Or’s two mosques have overflowed into the streets since a nearby mosque where 4,000 people could pray closed years ago, sparking the ire of French right-wing and anti-immigration parties.

The neighbourhood’s mosques are to be closed for at least the coming three Fridays in order to encourage those wanting to pray to go to the renovated barracks, one of the mosques’ preachers, Sheikh Mohammed Hamza, told AFP.

The barracks has two 750- and 600-square-metre (8,000 and 6,500 square feet) rooms for prayers pending the construction of a new 4,000-square-metre 30-million-euro Institute for Islamic Cultures set for 2013.

The temporary prayer site can hold around 2,700 people, police said.

Authorities in the southern city of Marseille on Thursday said they too would provide a 1,000-square-metre building for Friday prayers.

“Most of the organisations running mosques managed to find solutions allowing them to avoid this kind of practice (praying in the street),” Marseille police said.

“However, a small number of them don’t seem to be able to deal with the influx of the faithful into their too-small premises.”

“This provision is temporary and should allow the organisations to find long-term solutions,” police said, adding that “all the conditions have been met for there to no longer be prayers in Marseille’s streets.”