Religious leaders ask secular France for reconciliation dialogue

By Ecumenical News International
May 19, 2007

Religious leaders in avowedly secular France say they want newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy to promote dialogue within society as he takes up a five-year term of office - writes Bernadette Sauvaget.

"Our belief and experience of public debate means that we think this provides the best guarantee of national harmony in the performance of your duty," said the Rev Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the Protestant Federation of France (FPF), in a message to Sarkozy, who took up office on 16 May 2007.

"In particular, we have been interested in your willingness to respect and listen to those who did not vote for you," de Clermont told the new French president.

Roger Cukierman, the outgoing president of the Representative Council of the Jewish institutions of France (CRIF), stated in a message to Sarkozy, "Your statements contain hope for a France which must learn reconciliation."

In recent years, and in the face of the growth of new religious movements and the greater public visibility of Islam, most political leaders in France have strongly restated the secular principles underlying a 1905 law on which the separation of Church and State rests.

Sarkozy, however, has said he is willing to consider adjustments to the law.

"It is clear that Nicolas Sarkozy is ready to discuss religious issues," de Clermont told Ecumenical News International. "We have always known where we stood," explained the French Protestant leader, who has met Sarkozy on several occasions. "I have appreciated his ability to listen even if you do not agree with him."

In 2004, Sarkozy suggested in a book he wrote about religion that the section of the 1905 law that prevents the state from subsidising religion should be changed. The proposal was seen as a response to the lack of places of worship in France for Muslims, and a way of enabling local authorities to contribute to the cost of constructing religious buildings.

Sarkozy also strongly supported the creation of the French Muslim Religious Council (CFCM) as an umbrella for Muslim groups, when he was interior minister, a post that carries with it the responsibility for religious affairs.

"French Muslims have been able to assess his record," said Daniel Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque and president of the CFCM.

About 80 per cent of France's 60 million people are estimated to be Roman Catholic, compared to about 2 per cent who are Protestant, 1 per cent Jewish, and between 5 and 10 per cent Muslim.

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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