Paris mosque, Catholic univ. team up to train imams

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PARIS, Oct 2 (Reuters) The Paris Grand Mosque and the city's Catholic university are teaming up to offer university education for imams to promote moderate Islam and help integrate foreign-born Muslim prayer leaders in France.

The privately-run Catholic Institute of Paris will launch a two-semester course on French politics, law and secularism in January for future imams studying Islamic theology at the Grand Mosque, officials of both institutions told Reuters.

France has tried for several years to boost imam training.

The Sorbonne and public university in Paris declined to take on the task because they said it violated the legal separation of church and state.

The Catholic Institute courses will be given by the social and economic sciences faculty and not include any theology, the faculty dean Francois Mabille said.

''We have no vocation to train imams religiously, that is the responsibility of the Grand Mosque,'' Mabille said. ''The students will take political sciences courses on democracy, human rights and the French republic.'' Boubakeur said a meeting on Saturday of about 110 students of the Grand Mosque's theology institute unanimously supported the plan to link up with the Catholic Institute.

''This is an important innovation in Muslim education here,'' he said. ''The students appreciated that there was no religious teaching but only courses in the social sciences faculty.'' CONCERN ABOUT RADICAL ISLAM The 5 million Muslims in France form the largest such minority in Europe and it has long argued it needed to train home-grown imams to integrate its second-largest religion and inoculate it against radical Islam coming from abroad.

There are about 1,200 imams in France and many lead prayers and offer spiritual and practical advice to the faithful with little or no formal training. Three-quarters of them are not French citizens and one-third do not speak French.

The government has long been concerned that these imams pick up radical ideas, sometimes on short courses in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, and spread them in France.

The Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF) has run a small school for imams for the past 15 years, but the government is wary of its more orthodox views and prefers to work with the more moderate, Algerian-backed Grand Mosque.

The Grand Mosque's theology institute, which teaches the Koran, Islamic law and Muslim history in a three-year curriculum, is not accredited to grant university degrees.

With this new course, student imams with two years of university study will earn a bachelor's degree from the Catholic Institute after completing the course and writing a thesis.

The Sorbonne university almost took in student imams two years ago, but the faculty council scuppered the plan. Student protest stopped the second bid to launch this hybrid curriculum at a University of Paris division in the northern suburbs.

REUTERS SZ HS1300

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