Guestview: “Do you know of any people in Paris who go to church in these conditions?”

Muslim worshippers on their way to Friday prayers at a mosque near La Courneuve, twenty minutes north of Paris, pass a Roma camp, a road filled with garbage and a roaring highway. In front of the mosque is a recycling plant. Trucks drop off garbage and scrap metal no more than 50 meters from the main prayer room.

With nearly 5 million believers, France has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe. But construction permits for mosques in central (or even accessible) locations can be “almost impossible” to obtain, says an official at the Grand Mosque of Paris, the largest in France.

The Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF) runs the mosque in La Courneuve. The association’s goal is to better integrate Muslims into French society.

Two metro lines and several buses serve the Grand Mosque in the 5th arrondissement in central Paris. This is uncommon for a large portion of worshippers who live in poorer, suburban neighborhoods around the French capital. A security guard for the mosque in La Courneuve says, “There are no trains that come here, no parking, just the highway.”

The UOIF’s offices are on the second floor of the facility. From its waiting room, complete with two couches and a water cooler, you can see plastic bottles and garbage being separated at the recycling plant. Groups like the UOIF are charged with obtaining construction permits and putting up mosques. But they have difficulty doing so.

The result is that their buildings (including their main offices) are often in run-down industrial areas. “Our goal is to help Muslims practice their religion while taking account of the specificities of the French context,” says Ahmed Jaballah, president of the UOIF. “Today we operate many other mosques,” he explains. “Our faithful would love to come to a mosque in a central location. But no areas were zoned for this purpose by the local government, so we had to settle on the current location.”

Hassan, 42, is a volunteer at the UOIF’s mosque. “I take Friday afternoons off work to come here. They offer courses on the Koran, Arabic lessons and a preschool for my children.” He adds: “We have trouble finding parking and people have to sometimes walk 15 minutes from their cars on Friday.”

France’s Interior Ministry has a religious affairs bureau that handles relations between the state and religious communities. One official there said that that municipal governments don’t give out permits in “visible” spots, such as squares in French cities and communes.

That is why the UOIF was forced into its current spot. “It was cheap and we could start building immediately. We have too many people to serve in the community. We couldn’t wait,” explains Jaballah.

France’s secularist traditions mean data on mosques is hard to come by. The city of Paris divides building permits into five categories depending on the purpose of the building. Places of worship fall into a “miscellaneous” category, one official explains. “There are rarely requests to construct mosques, we wouldn’t even be able to tell you how many were submitted last year,” he says at the office that deals with requests.

A trip upstairs to the Department of Urban Planning yields a room full of officials, some with more than 10 years of experience, with absolutely no information on mosques built in the French capital.The Interior Ministry, responsible for the country’s safety and security, takes no position on the presence of underground mosques and unofficial prayer rooms. These rooms often do not have fire exits or insurance. “They exist,” says Hassan. “Many people go because they cannot drive all the way out here every week.”

The Interior Ministry, the police, the city of Paris and the Grand Mosque of Paris could not provide any figures relating to mosques in Paris.

The official Muslim Council of France (CFCM) estimated that approximately 100 mosques were built in France in 2011. According to the rector of the Grand Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, the country needs at least 200 new mosques to keep up with the needs of its current Muslim population.

The parts of cities and towns where these mosques could be built where not specified by either the CFCM or the Grand Mosque.

France could do a lot better. The government needs to track mosques and allow them to be built near public transportation and central squares. The city of Paris says that would be difficult. But in largely immigrant areas such as these, mosques can provide childcare for families and language courses. They can actually provide a first step a newcomer in France.

Turning a blind eye to them means none of this happens.

Hassan goes outside to say goodbye to people leaving the afternoon service. A large truck carrying plastic bottles reverses into the recycling plant’s loading dock. He turns and asks, “Do you know of any people in Paris who go to church in these conditions?”