French mosque fund starts after political delay
(this story was first published on Oct 10)
By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - A French fund to help build mosques and finance Muslim projects will start work next week after a two-year delay caused mostly by tensions between President Nicolas Sarkozy and a failed rival for his job.
Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie announced on Wednesday the board of directors of the Foundation for Islamic Works would hold their first meeting on October 16.
The foundation had been in limbo since being launched by one of her predecessors in March 2005, Alliot-Marie remarked diplomatically at the Grand Mosque of Paris during an iftar dinner breaking the Ramadan fast.
"The inaugural meetings of the board of directors will take place on October 16," she added. "I hope a construction programme can be worked out in close cooperation with elected officials, especially with mayors."
The reason for the delay, which she left unmentioned but Muslim leaders present well knew, was that Dominique de Villepin launched the foundation while he was interior minister and Sarkozy shelved it when he replaced Villepin two months later.
The competition between Sarkozy and Villepin, who became prime minister in May 2005, was a feature of French politics for several years before Sarkozy's win in the May 2007 presidential election.
"Villepin launched the foundation and we were all very pleased, but then Sarkozy replaced him as interior minister and stuffed the plan in a drawer," said one Muslim official.
"Now that Sarkozy is president and Villepin is out of the picture, the project can go ahead."
REASSURE FOREIGN DONORS
The foundation aims to help finance France's Muslim community, the largest in Europe, by managing voluntary contributions from donors.
Funds from abroad dried up after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States both because French officials controlled them more closely and donors shied away from giving to Islamic charities that might be helping terrorists.
Villepin's foundation won wide support from France's divided Muslim leaders because it created a fund that would openly administer voluntary contributions coming in and grants going out to build mosques and finance Islamic organisations.
The foundation's hybrid status as a private body with strong political support from the state also promised to reassure foreign donors who sometimes saw earlier contributions end up in corrupt hands, Muslim leaders said.
The foundation will also finance the French Council of the Muslim Faith, which Sarkozy helped set up in 2003. The council has accomplished little because it lacks funds for many of the services Muslims would like to see it provide.
When the foundation was announced in 2005, officials said it had 800,000 euros (557,242 pounds) pledged in starting capital. Media reports said Qatar was ready to contribute 1.5 million euros.
But none of this could be cashed in and used because the Sarkozy-Villepin stalemate meant the fund was effectively stillborn, Muslim officials said.
France's 5 million Muslims have more than 1,500 places of worship but many are makeshift prayer halls rather than proper mosques. Many local communities want to build real mosques but they lack funds and the secular state cannot subsidise them.
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