Catholic school teaches Muslims national norms

Paris, France - With an eye to putting a French stamp on Islam, the country's second-largest religion, the center-right government has initiated a civics training experiment for imams and Muslim chaplains in an unusual venue: the prestigious Catholic Institute of Paris.

A mostly male class of 25 began courses in January aimed at offering a broad understanding of French legal, historical and social norms at the institution, better known for producing priests and Christian scholars.

The training is intended to help shape a new generation of Islamic clerics for France's Muslim population of 5 million to 7 million, the largest in Western Europe. Beyond that is a subtext: France wants to ensure that the message sounding from French mosques is not marked by radical Islam, but rather by the nation's fiercely cherished separation of church and state.

"We're not interfering in the theological training of imams; that's the role of Muslim institutes," said Gerard Gachet, spokesman for the French Interior Ministry, a key player in establishing the program. "But we believe that as French Muslim institutions are put in place, along with the training that has just begun, a French Islam will emerge that's perfectly integrated into French society and is a factor of integration."

Initiated in collaboration with the mainstream Paris Mosque, the yearlong program aims to offer a broad-based understanding of French legal institutions, politics and "republican values."

Theological matters are left to the Paris Mosque, which has been running a four-year imam training program since 1993. The students are largely foreign-born, many hailing from North and sub-Saharan Africa.

"At first, the students were a bit apprehensive about going to a university," said Francois Mabille, dean of the Catholic Institute's social sciences department, which is running the program. "Now, they're thirsty to learn."

So far, the program has drawn only students from the Paris Mosque.

Left out are those from training institutes run by the more fundamentalist Union of Islamic Organizations of France, whose reported skepticism about the program reflects long-running political divisions in the country's Muslim community.

About 80 percent of the roughly 1,200 imams preaching in France come from overseas. The Turkish and Algerian governments pay the salaries for their imams.

Many preachers do not speak French, leading to problems communicating with their congregations and understanding French customs and laws.

Most European capitals became alarmed about Islamic terrorism after the 2001 attacks in the United States, and more emphatically with the 2004 and 2005 bombings in Madrid and London. Paris, however, has been wary of the growth of radical Islam since the 1990s, when France was the target of subway attacks and a plane hijacking by Algerian radicals.

France has deported about 70 radical Muslims, including 15 imams, since 2001, according to the Interior Ministry. Fifteen others remain under surveillance.

Still, radical Islam remains on the fringe of France's increasingly heterogeneous Muslim community.

Although roughly a third consider themselves practicing Muslims, another quarter define themselves only as "Muslim by origin," said sociologist Franck Fregosi, who has published a book on the subject.