In a Strasbourg mosque, the often-uneasy French mix with Muslim neighbors

STRASBOURG, France — One woman asked why Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, changes dates every year. Then came a question about how Muslims calculate that the world is entering the year 1434.

For Abdelrahman Binjalloun, a Moroccan-born pharmacist who doubles as a guide, the questions were routine. Since it was inaugurated in September after a three-decade controversy — and even while it was under construction — the Great Mosque of Strasbourg has become a tourist site, a destination for school excursions and a meeting place where often-uneasy French people come face to face with their increasingly numerous Muslim neighbors.

Such coming together is not the norm in France, whose army has been dispatched to Mali to destroy bands of radical Islamists who hold 15 French citizens hostage. At home, the country’s Christian traditions have been rubbed the wrong way by a Muslim minority that is often so concentrated in certain suburban neighborhoods that veils are common and Arabic is more spoken than French.

A law banning full-face veils for women was passed two years ago, one much-discussed symptom of the unease, and right-wing political leaders have opposed mosque projects in a number of cities, including Strasbourg.

The number of Muslims in France has never been established with certainty, in part because of a law forbidding officials or researchers from asking about ethnic origins. But the Interior Ministry and mainline researchers have estimated that more than 5 million people, 8 to 10 percent of the population, were born into families of Muslim tradition.

Whatever the exact tally, Muslims have become an increasingly visible part of life in France, and the $14 million Great Mosque of Strasbourg has added dramatically to that visibility.

Familiar landmark

Conceived by an Italian architect, Paolo Portoghesi, the mosque’s 14,000-square-foot prayer hall, covered by a 40-foot-wide copper dome and flanked by soaring wings designed to suggest a blooming flower, has become a familiar landmark beside a graceful curve in the Ill River, near the tourist-heavy Petite France neighborhood of Strasbourg.

More than 20,000 visitors inspected the construction site between July 2011 and July 2012. In the four months since Interior Minister Manuel Valls and Morocco’s religious affairs minister, Ahmed Toufiq, presided over the inauguration, another 10,000 have taken guided tours of the finished building and the tempo of visits is accelerating, according to Said Aalla, a Strasbourg jurist who is president of the mosque’s governing council.

As word of the mosque and its open-arms policy spreads, tourists have begun asking for directions at the Strasbourg Tourism Office, which sits in the shadow of the Middle Ages cathedral, Notre Dame of Strasbourg, that has long dominated the landscape of this much-fought-over city of 450,000 on the border between France and Germany.

Aalla said the mosque’s secondary vocation as a public monument did not evolve accidentally. He and fellow members of the governing council, he explained, decided early on that if Strasbourg’s estimated 40,000 Muslims were to live comfortably with their Christian neighbors, they had the duty to explain their religion and make it less forbidding.