French authorities halt Muslim school opening

Lyon, France - What was billed as France's biggest Muslim high school may not come to be.

With 150 students already signed up, the head of the school district this week canceled plans to open the new facility, citing concerns ranging from safety to a crisis among members of the founding association.

But some are suggesting that the refusal to allow the September opening of the Al Kindi school, outside Lyon, was motivated by its Muslim character.

The Al Kindi association has filed an appeal.

France's first-ever private Muslim high school, the Averros Lycée, opened in 2003 in a mosque in the northern city of Lille. The first Muslim school, a junior high school in Aubervilliers, outside Paris, was founded in 2001.

France has the largest Muslim community in Western Europe, estimated at five million, and Islam is the nation's second religion, after Roman Catholicism.

There are hundreds of private Catholic schools, and there were predictions that a 2004 law banning Muslim head scarves and other ''ostentatious'' religious symbols from classrooms would lead to an explosion of Muslim private schools. However, that has not been the case.

Al Kindi was billing itself as the largest Muslim school. The brick and glass buildings were to open their doors Sept. 4 in a renovated office building on an industrial site in the Lyon suburb of Décines, in southeast France. It would include middle school and high school students.

The head of the Lyon Academy that oversees area schools announced Wednesday that he had decided against allowing classes to start.

Alain Morvan cited safety issues such as ground pollution and a high-pressure gas conduit near the school. However, he also cited what he called a ''crisis'' between the man who was to head the school, Meddour Zoubir, and the Al Kindi association.

The association denied the claim, saying in a statement that it was ``shocked.''

''Is this hate against a school with a Muslim reference?'' asked Nazir Hakim, president of the Al Kindi association and a national vice president of the fundamentalist Union of Islamic Organizations of France. The association was created in 2003 to open the school.

''We have the impression that there was a wish to block a project by Muslims. That's not good for social cohesion,'' said Kamel Kabtane, the head of the Grand Mosque of Lyon.

The district denied such claims.