Francois Fillon, embracing his Catholicism, challenges France’s secular tradition

When French presidential contender François Fillon marked the Feast of the Assumption last summer, he attended Mass at Solesmes Abbey, a Benedictine monastery known for resisting the anticlerical purges of the French Revolution. The trip, coming just weeks after the slaying of a Catholic priest in a terror attack, didn’t go unnoticed.

“He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s Catholic,” said Christophe Billan, head of Sens Commun, a grass-roots movement comprising thousands of French Catholics.

In France, the strict separation between personal faith and public life, known as laïcité, is a pillar of national identity. However, a confluence of events—from the legalization of gay marriage to the more recent string of Islamist terror attacks—has many conservative voters looking to the country’s Christian heritage as a bulwark.

Mr. Fillon’s candidacy is seizing on that impulse. In publicly embracing his faith, the 62-year-old is tapping a wellspring of Catholic voters who have begun coalescing into a potentially decisive voting bloc.

His performance during the country’s first-ever conservative primaries provided the clearest sign yet of the revived Catholic vote. After lagging behind rivals for weeks, Mr. Fillon spent the homestretch of the race debating opponent Alain Juppé over which of them stood closer to the teachings of Pope Francis —a development Le Monde described as “unprecedented.”

More than two-thirds of the people who voted in the primaries described themselves as Catholic in exit polls, and they helped hand Mr. Fillon a commanding victory. Pollster OpinionWay said 83% of Catholics who regularly attend Mass voted for Mr. Fillon and 68% of nonpracticing Catholics also backed him. Between 55%-60% of the overall French electorate identifies as Catholic, according to Jerome Fourquet, director of polling firm IFOP.

“I’ve never been so consciously influenced by my being Catholic,” said Catherine Mordant, 46 years old, a stay-at-home mother of four children who voted for Mr. Fillon. “Now we have to act, because the problem is really crucial.”

The Catholic vote is shaping up to play an unusually prominent role in the general election in May, when polls predict Mr. Fillon will face-off against Marine Le Pen , leader of the far-right anti-immigrant and anti-euro National Front party.

Many conservative Catholics shifted to the National Front during recent regional elections, feeling more at home with its call for revived nationalism than with the pro-EU principles—free movement of people and goods—espoused by other parties.

A quarter of self-described practicing Catholics voted for the National Front in December 2015 regional elections, up from 16% in local races in March of that year, according to IFOP.

Mr. Fillon’s Catholicism reassures voters who want to show support for French traditions. “The National Front has made a lot of progress with this group,” said Mr. Fourquet. “They could come back to the center-right with Fillon.”

The rise of a Catholic vote in France is a measure of how deeply the continent has been shaken by a series of crises, from the arrival of migrant waves from the Middle East to the surge in political parties questioning the future of the European Union itself. Just over a decade ago, it was France that led a successful campaign to prevent any reference to Europe’s Christian heritage from being added to the European Union’s constitution.

Today the EU is grappling with nationalist movements that point to President Vladimir Putin of Russia as a model of leadership, preferring his authoritarianism to the uncertainty clouding the economic bloc. Mr. Fillon has cultivated ties with Mr. Putin, criticizing sanctions the EU imposed on Russia after its forced annexation of Crimea.

Mr. Fillon has been careful to couch his talk of faith in language respectful to secularism. His support for Church teachings are personal choices, he says, not policy prescriptions. He has said he is personally against abortion but believes pro-choice laws shouldn’t be changed, and that he wouldn’t repeal the gay-marriage law but would revise sections that legalized adoption by gay couples.

Still, the politician has gone further than many of his peers in demanding space for religious voices in the public square. “Whenever the nation faces fundamental questions—life, death, what makes us human beings—it’s important that the point of view of religions not be ignored,” Mr. Fillon wrote in a chapter dedicated to faith in his book “To Do.”

In September, he returned to the question of religion and Republican values with the publication of a follow-up, best-selling volume, “Vanquishing Islamic Totalitarianism.”

“Let’s stop kidding ourselves,” he wrote. “France doesn’t have a problem with religion [in general]. The problem is linked to Islam.”

French secularism grew out of the 18th-century Enlightenment and the 1789 Revolution. It was codified in a 1905 law on the separation of church and state that strictly limited the display of religious symbols in public places and forbade religious instruction in public elementary schools.

Designed to curb the influence of the Catholic Church, the law also helped lay the foundations for political conduct in the post-World War II era. French Catholics followed the cues of statesmen from Charles de Gaulle to François Mitterrand, who mainly kept their religious beliefs to themselves.

Any public references to faith were discreet. Mr. Mitterrand was praised for a 1981 campaign poster that set him against a bucolic background dominated by a church bell tower—a symbol of the central place of Christianity in the secular nation’s heritage. At the same time, the church’s cross had been airbrushed out.

The balance between public service and private faith has come under strain as the children and grandchildren of North African immigrants in the 1960s have come of age. These younger generations of one of Europe’s biggest Muslim minorities tend to practice stricter forms of Islam.

In response, successive French governments have become increasingly strict in their application of secularism. A debate over students wearing Islamic head scarves led to a 2004 ban on wearing religious symbols in general in public schools, including crosses and yarmulkes.

Catholics who once steered clear of politics out of respect for laïcité gradually found reason to speak up. One moment came in 2013 after newly elected president, Socialist François Hollande, signed legislation legalizing gay marriage. To the surprise of many, hundreds of thousands of Catholics took to the streets in what was known as a “manif pour tous,” a protest march for everyone.

“A cornerstone was being touched—defining the identity of the child, the couple—and we were barred from the debate,” said Mr. Billan of Sens Commun.

Seizing on the momentum of the protests, Mr. Billan and others founded the grass-roots movement, called “common sense,” with 9,000 members across the country. Though not officially Catholic, the group aimed to pressure lawmakers on a platform consistent with church teachings. Suddenly, French Catholics had a lobby.

The group found a kindred spirit in Mr. Fillon. He had grown up in Sarthe, a rural area nestled in France’s northwest, where he attended a Jesuit school. He recited morning prayers and mealtime benedictions.

“I grew up in a world where the Catholic faith structured whole sections of your social life,” Mr. Fillon wrote in “To Do.”

As prime minister between 2007 and 2012 to then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr. Fillon’s social conservatism took a back seat to his role as a technocrat carrying out economic policy.

When he returned to the opposition as a lawmaker in 2012, however, Mr. Fillon clashed with Mr. Hollande’s Socialist government. He voted against the gay-marriage bill and criticized the government for not doing more to protect Christian minorities in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, organizing a rally in June 2015 to support them.

“We are all Eastern Christians!” Mr. Fillon told the crowd.

A year later, Mr. Fillon met with Mr. Billan of Sens Commun, seeking the group’s support to better compete with Messrs. Sarkozy and Juppé, who had the support of the machinery of the conservative party, the Républicains.

Sens Commun had built the kind of grass roots organization Mr. Fillon lacked. It had phone banks, a social-media operation and local chapters across the country that would eventually be called upon to canvass for voters and drive them to the polls.

Weeks later France was hit by a pair of terrorist attacks. The first, a truck attack on a Bastille Day fireworks display in Nice that killed 86 people, struck at a symbol of national unity.

Less than two weeks later, the brutal slaying of Rev. Jacques Hamel, 85, while he celebrated Mass in a small town church in the country’s north stirred a rare outpouring of support for France’s Catholic roots. Thousands of people, including Mr. Fillon, packed into Notre Dame of Paris to celebrate a Mass in tribute to the priest.

Thibault Fraisse, a 28 year-old doctor from the town of Aurillac in central France, said he worried the priest’s slaying and other attacks were an outgrowth of Muslim communities isolated from the rest of French society. He said wider acknowledgment of France’s Christian past, and a vote for Mr. Fillon, could act as a counterweight.

“We have to recognize that France is first and foremost a country with Catholic roots,” said Mr. Fraisse, who describes himself as a nonpracticing Catholic.

In August, Mr. Fillon held a rally near his hometown, where he warned of a France “ashamed” of its history and reminded the crowd he had recently celebrated the Feast of the Assumption at the nearby Abbey of Solesmes.

“You just heard the bells ringing,” Mr. Fillon said, gesturing toward the Benedictine monastery. “A thousand years of history! How can you not feel the force, the power, the depth of this past that forged us, that giv

 

Muslims in a Bible Belt town hold their breath

Murfreesboro is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country and an increasingly diverse one. Muslim and Christian students go to school and play sports together; their families patronize the same restaurants and stores.

Residents variously describe the town as a proud example of Southern hospitality, a growing “melting pot,” a suburb of “little blue dot” Nashville and the “buckle on the Bible Belt.” Its downtown with the old courthouse and Confederate-soldiers memorial yields to strip malls and chain stores, new housing developments and old cotton fields, and the university, with its 20,000 undergraduates.

Among the town’s couple hundred places of worship are 59 Baptist churches, including an Arabic Baptist church as well as Grace Baptist, whose deacon in 2010 greeted the construction of the new mosque next door by erecting 23 huge white crosses on the road.

Murfreesboro doesn’t need “to have a lot of Muslims,” Sally Wall said. “I think they can stay where they are and we stay where we are.”

But there’s more tolerance because of the public acrimony over the mosque, said City Council member Bill Shacklett.

“I wish some of the things hadn’t happened. But the one thing it has done is compel people to open their hearts and minds to be drawn toward each other . . . get out and flesh out your faith with different people,” Shacklett said, adding that Muslims and Christians have started to do that.

 

 

Ann Arbor police: Woman forced to remove hijab after man threatens to set her on fire

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – A woman was forced to remove her hijab after a man threatened to set her on fire with a lighter near the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor.

Ann Arbor police said the incident happened in the 600 block of East William near S. State Street between 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Friday.

Police said the man approached the victim and demanded she remove her hijab or he would set her on fire. The woman complied and was able to leave the area.

The University of Michigan is warning students to watch their surroundings. It issued a campus safety alert. The threat leaves most students, regardless of religious faith, disturbed.

A JOINT MUSLIM STATEMENT ON THE CARNAGE IN ORLANDO

On behalf of the American Muslim community, we, the undersigned, want to extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims of the barbaric assault that occurred early yesterday morning at Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We unequivocally say that such an act of hate-fueled violence has no place in any faith, including Islam. As people of faith, we believe that all human beings have the right to safety and security and that each and every human life is inviolable.
We know that, given the tenor of the times, some will associate this tragedy with the religion of the perpetrator. While we may never learn conclusively what motivated this misguided individual, many news sources claim that he was motivated by his faith, which would be a reprehensible distortion of Islam adding the religion to the long list of innocent victims in this callous crime. Any such acts of violence violate every one of our Prophet’s teachings. For Muslims, that this carnage occurred in the blessed month of Ramadan—a month of charity, introspection, and self-purification—only adds to the foulness of this enormity.
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American Muslims Remember Ali as Hero for Their Faith

NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES — The death of boxing great Muhammad Ali cost American Muslims perhaps their greatest hero, a goodwill ambassador for Islam in a country where their minority faith is widely misunderstand and mistrusted.
“We thank God for him,” Talib Shareef, president and imam of the Masjid Muhammad mosque in Washington, told a gathering of Muslim leaders who honored Ali in Washington on Saturday, a day after he died in a Phoenix hospital at age 74. “America should thank God for him. He was an American hero.”
“When we look at the history of the African-American community, one important factor in popularizing Islam in America is Muhammad Ali,” Warith Deen Mohammed II, son of the former Nation of Islam leader, said in a statement.

US Muslims draw inspiration from Ali’s fight for his faith

DETROIT — Even in his final months, Muhammad Ali was speaking out on behalf of Islam, the religion he so famously embraced in the 1960s by changing his name and refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.
In December, the boxing legend issued a statement criticizing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Ali called on fellow Muslims to “stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.”
Ali, who died Friday at 74, endured public scorn when he joined the Nation of Islam as a young athlete. Decades later, long after he had achieved worldwide renown, he kept advocating for Muslims in the U.S. who felt their religion made them political targets.

Olympic faithful: Ibtihaj Muhammad

Even as a kid, Ibtihaj Muhammad stood out. She was faster and stronger than her friends, and she was serious about her religion. Most of the sports she tried required physically revealing gear, in sharp contrast to the modesty her Muslim faith required. Then she discovered fencing. The sport let her express her athletic talent, and the uniform allowed her to stay true to her faith.

Today Ibtihaj is one of the best fencers in the world—and an observant Muslim woman. This summer, she will represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. And when she competes for her country, representing all of us, she will be the first American Olympian to do so while wearing the hijab. Ibtihaj embraced what made her stand out, and she’s an Olympian because of it.

That’s not just the story of Ibtihaj Muhammad. That’s the story of America.

Muslim students in France condemn attacks, saying ‘we are united’ (video)

Etudiants Musulmans de France, a national association of Muslim students, issued a video statement condemning the Paris attacks and expressing grief and solidarity. The message is composed in an almost poetic style, and is being shared with the hashtag #NousSommesUnis — We Are United.

“One for all and all for humanity.

Nearly 120 dead. A hundred wounded.

Three days of mourning because of eight suspected terrorists.

France is plunged into chaos and terror.

And I’m speechless …

They think they are waging war against the Crusaders,

and invoke the Quran and rely on its verses.

But shedding the blood of the innocent does not follow any law.

If they do not understand, I do not understand.

Will my heart have enough time to heal?

With Charlie Hebdo, Thalys and Paris attacked.

“I feel so sad for France,” my heart screams out loud,

and my faith follows my heart.

My faith, whose foundations are shaken.

By 120 deaths and millions of wounded hearts.

By what the terrorists did, convinced they made the right choice.

But the right faith will always condemn these attacks.

They wanted to weaken France.

They have strengthened the heart of the French.

A cry will be stronger: it is the cry of brotherhood.

One for all, and all for humanity.

We are and remain united forever.”

First Dutch halal-bank might open in the Netherlands

Islamic banking is on the rise in the Netherlands. The Turkish bank KuveytTürk opened its first halal-bank in Germany last week. Now the bank is looking towards the Netherlands for further options.

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This was said by Kemal Ozan, the general manager of the German branch of the bank. “After the opening in Frankfurt we would like to expand to the Dutch market.” He points to the large Muslim community in the Netherlands which consists of almost a million people. “There is a lot of potential for Islamic banking in the Netherlands.”

In 2008 The Dutch Bank and the Authority for Financial Markets identified a “substantial latent need” for Islamic banking products. However this never materialized. The Rabobank did experiment with interest-free banking products but without result. “We did have a look at it then but at the time it was not commercially interesting enough,” a spokesperson of the bank said.

The impediments are abundant: the quantity of Muslims is hard to establish and not all Muslims are orthodox practitioners of their faith. The Central Bureau for Statistics does forecast a considerable growth of the amount of Muslims in the Netherlands. Similarly, the average gross income of that group is increasing.

The most important impediment of the Dutch consumer market is the deduction of interest for mortgages. As a rule, conventional mortgages are cheaper because buyers of houses can deduce those mortgage’s interest from their taxes. Islamic mortgages would be easier to implement if a comparable settlement would be set up.

When the first Dutch Islamic bank will open in the Netherlands is not sure yet according to Ozan: “If our expansion is stabilized we will focus our attention on the Dutch market.”

UKIP Candidate says he wants to license mosques

A Ukip candidate who previously said the Prophet Mohamed was a "gang leader" and likened Islam to organised crime has announced that he would want to "licence mosques" if elected. (Photo: Channel 4)
A UKIP candidate who previously said the Prophet Mohamed was a “gang leader” and likened Islam to organised crime has announced that he would want to “licence mosques” if elected. (Photo: Channel 4)

A UKIP candidate who previously said the Prophet Mohamed was a “gang leader” and likened Islam to organised crime has announced that he would want to “licence mosques” if elected. Magnus Nielsen, who is UKIP’s parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, told the Ham & High that his “great aim” was to “licence the mosques and licence the clergy”.

“So that if the clergy are preaching doctrine that is in contravention of UK law and human rights then they lose their licences,” he added. “If the mosque can’t find a licensed imam, they have to close down until they can.” The 65-year-old, who joined UKIP in 1993, has often stressed that his views on Islam are not official UKIP policy.

In a blog post published a day after the attacks in which 17 people were killed by Islamic extremists, UKIP MP Gerard Batten argued that individuals who practice the faith should sign the charter to mark themselves out from the “tiny minority of Muslims who want to return to the Dark Ages of Arabia and live under Sharia Law”. When reports of the charter emerged in 2014, party leader Nigel Farage distanced himself from it and said its contents “are not and never have been UKIP policy”.