PARIS - Hundreds of mosques across France are participating in a major open-house event this weekend, offering visitors the opportunity to come in for tea and a chat about Islam in a country shaken by jihadist attacks.
Dubbed “a brotherly cup of tea”, the weekend initiative took different forms with local mosques handing out hot drinks and pastries, offering guided visits, putting on debates and calligraphy workshops, and even inviting people to attend one of the five daily prayers.
Organised by the country’s leading Muslim body, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), it aims to stimulate dialogue about Islam and create a greater sense of “national cohesion”, a year after 17 people were killed in jihadist attacks in Paris targeting satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket. “The objective is to create a space where people can be together and meet normal Muslim worshippers and all of our fellow citizens,” CFCM president Anouar Kbibech told AFP.
The idea is to use the anniversary of the January 7-9 attacks to “highlight the real values of Islam, to set straight the cliches about links to violence and terrorism,” he said, describing the venture as a “gesture of openness”. “Instead of dwelling on these tragic acts, it seemed more useful and important to celebrate ‘the spirit of January 11’,” he said, referring to the date last year when millions of people took to the streets in a mass show of solidarity.
Following further attacks in November, in which jihadists killed 130 people, France declared a state of emergency which has seen police staging around 20 raids on Muslim places of worship. At least three have been closed on suspicion of radicalising their members.
In a small prayer hall in Ajaccio on the French island of Corsica, which was attacked on Christmas day, Jean-Francois, in his sixties, took up the invitation to visit. “If someone holds out their hand, I accept it and I shake it,” he said, while drinking a steaming cup of tea.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve accepted an invitation to visit a mosque near Paris, and hailed the initiative. France needs, more than ever, “the engagement of all Muslims in France,” he said, while warning that “the self-proclaimed preachers of hate” in mosques would be dealt with severely. Although not all of France’s 2,500 mosques and places of worship are taking part, the most important ones are, including the Grand Mosque of Paris. The event comes after a year which saw a surge in anti-Muslim acts in France, some of which targeted places of worship, although the number was much lower after the November bloodshed than after the January attacks. France’s five million Muslims often complain of discrimination, notably on the employment front. With some agricultural organisations threatening to maintain an indefinite blockade of one of the main bridges over the Loire, thousands of people, some on foot, others on bikes or driving tractors blocked roads in the area demanding the cancellation of expulsion orders handed to 11 families and four farmers living at the site.
Protesters have been engaged in a 15-year legal battle to block construction of a major new airport on swampland outside the city, with Saturday’s demonstration the biggest gathering in two years. Demonstrators caused major disruption to traffic on the Nantes ring road and also blocked access to the city’s international airport, Nantes Atlantique.
But unlike the protests of February 2014, which gathered over 20,000 people and deteriorated into clashes with the police, Saturday’s rally took place in a peaceful atmosphere.
Agricultural organisations using megaphones announced that they would keep one of the main crossing points over the Loire, the Chevire bridge, blocked as long as French President Francois Holland failed to stop the expulsion orders. To begin with, between 80 and 100 tractors would block access to the bridge on Saturday night, Vincent Delabouglisse, of the anti-airport organisation COPAIN44, told AFP.
The protest was held two months after an announcement by regional authorities that the massive construction project, which has been on hold for nearly three years, would resume in 2016 in a move backed by the courts.
The project involves transferring Nantes Atlantique airport to a 1,650-hectare (4,000-acre) site of protected swampland just outside the city, which developers say will provide a major boost to tourism in western France. Approved in 2008, the 580-million-euro ($747 million) project had been due to start in 2014 but was repeatedly delayed due to fierce opposition by environmental protesters.
Moreover, Belgian investigators believe explosives used in the attacks in Paris in November may have been made in an apartment in Brussels that was rented under a false name and where a fingerprint of a key fugitive was found. Police found material that could be used to make explosives, traces of explosive acetone peroxide and handmade belts during a raid on the apartment on Dec. 10, federal prosecutors said in a statement on Friday.
Belgian newspaper De Standaard, which reported the raid in its Friday edition, said the investigators believed the explosives were probably packed into suicide belts in a hotel outside Paris in the lead-up to the Nov. 13 attacks.
Prosecutors investigating Belgian links to the Paris attacks said the apartment in the district of Schaerbeek had been rented under a false name that might have been used by a person already in custody in connection with the Paris attacks. The find adds to indications that the Nov. 13 shooting and suicide bomb attacks in Paris, in which 130 people were killed, were at least partially planned in Belgium.
Two of the attackers had been living in Brussels and Belgian authorities have arrested 10 people. Investigators also found a fingerprint of Salah Abdeslam, the brother of one of the attackers, who returned from Paris the morning after the attacks and has still not been found.
Many of those arrested in Belgium have links to Abdeslam, including two who drove from Brussels hours after the attacks to pick him up and another who drove him from one part of Brussels to Schaerbeek after his return.
According to De Standaard, investigators believe the fingerprint indicates Abdeslam used the flat as a safe house after the attacks, given signs that the apartment had been partially cleaned up, although they do not know how long he stayed there. Belgian media also said this week investigators also now believe that two men controlled the Nov. 13 attacks by sending SMS text messages from Belgium during the evening.