French Muslim, Jewish Leaders Unite to Encourage Religious Tolerance

25 June 2008

Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities, both located inFrance, have just elected new leaders Sunday, who both vow to maketheir faiths more tolerant and open to non-believers. From Paris, LisaBryant reports the two men assume their new jobs under difficultconditions.

Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of France'sRepresentative Muslim Council and Gilles Bernheim, tapped to become thenext Grand Rabbi of France, are both intellectuals who preside in theirseparate positions over Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities.France is home to between five to seven million Muslims and roughly500,000 to 600,000 Jews.

In interviews on French radio and innewspapers, both new leaders call for a new openness, with Mr. Bernheimspecifically talking about the need to reach out to those outside theJewish faith.

Mr. Bernheim said it was important for the Jewishreligion to reach out to non-Jews and offer solutions to problemspeople of all faiths share. He said it was important to reach out byspeaking but also by writing articles and books.

The 56-year-oldParis rabbi takes over his job as France's Grand Rabbi next January. Hepresides over a community that has witnessed a rise in anti-Semitismalthough the numbers of incidents have declined over the past twoyears. Still, a Jewish youth remains in critical condition at a Parishospital after being attacked Saturday night in what may be a new actof anti-Semitism.

Mr. Moussaoui is a 44-year-old imam fromMorocco who also works as a math instructor at the University ofAvignon, in southern France. His election to the representative Muslimcouncil reflects the battling branches of French Islam, divided partlyby national origin. The previous council head, Algeria-supported DalilBoubakeur, boycotted the June vote.

In an interview with RadioFrance, Moussaoui said it was important for French mosques to be placesopen to the world and sites of peace. He has called for launching opendoor days in mosques, so the public can visit, but also for buildingmosques that do justice to France's second largest religion. SomeMuslims complain about the difficulties of building new mosques inFrance, forcing them to pray in less formal places like apartments.