As France’s churches become increasingly empty, more and more Muslims are seeking a place to worship. Muslim leader Dalli Boubakeur proposes a solution: turn churches into mosques. The idea of transforming these historic sites into spaces for a foreign religion has outraged the nationalist right. Yet though Catholicism was once inextricable from French identity, many young people—like me—are more interested in spirituality than tradition.
I wear pants to my first communion. They are white, to please my grandmother, but bell-bottomed and with pockets, to please me. I forget the words to the hymns though we rehearsed a hundred times, and I swallow the Eucharist whole.
I am seated at the adult’s table, with my sister for support. I spit out the game brought by my uncle (deer or boar? maybe rabbit), and pick around the turnips. I am seven, but today I am served red wine. Relatives are sprinkled around our living room. A distant cousin is gnawing on my favorite stuffed animal (a dragon named Puff), and I go rescue him. Puff’s a little soggy, so I bring him out to dry in the sun. I am lying in the dewy grass and already my pants are stained.
I am called back to the living room and passed down my relatives: a peck on each cheek, and twice if they’re from the South of France. I am vaguely aware of a cartoon playing in the back. John the Baptist baptizes Jesus, and my hands are heavy with rosaries, religious figurines and a gold-embossed Bible.
In tenth grade, I let my parents know that’s not for me.
France’s brand of political laïcité [secularism] is well known, but data on the makeup of its religious population is harder to come by. Following principles of secularism, the French Republic does not probe for religious demographics in census polls. What is known is that the Christian population is declining, and that while 70% of the French population is baptized, a WIN-Gallup poll conducted in 2012 estimates that nearly 40% considers itself atheist.
Islam is considered the second religion of France, and according to a Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project poll, its population is projected to increase from 7.5% in 2010 to 10.3% in 2030. A younger following and immigrants from North African countries bolster Islam’s steady growth.
As things stand, churches are emptying, and there is a shortage of mosques. There are 40,000 churches in France, many of them deserted and badly needing to be restored, for the 11 million practicing Catholics. There are only 2, 500 mosques for nearly 3 million Muslims. That’s 275 members per church, and 1,200 per mosque. The numbers don’t match up. More mosques need to be built to accommodate the increasing Islamic population.
Dalil Boubakeur is the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris and President of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, and for many, he is the face of Islam in France. He is not an intimidating man; I think it helps to have his face at the helm of the Muslim population in France. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015, the religious climate is tense, and any provocation is used as fodder to advance the nationalist party’s anti-immigration agenda (read: xenophia). Boubakeur does not generally provoke. He is conciliatory, and while he backs Islamic interests in France (and has his work cut out for him), he does so with every intention of promoting peace among faiths.
In his book Lettre Ouverte aux Français, Boubakeur contrasts the scarcity of mosques with the prevalence of churches, and asks that addressing this disparity become a matter of political urgency. He suggests converting abandoned churches into mosques. Queue uproar.
The conversion has been done before: a church that had been vacated for over thirty years in Clermont-Ferrand was transformed into a mosque, with the warm support of the community. Boubakeur adds, “It’s the same God, the rituals are neighboring, fraternal, and I think Christians and Muslims can coexist and live together”.
These words have been called irresponsible, shocking and criminal. Twitter-avengers have had a field day. The Senator Stéphanie Ravier tweeted, “Dalil Boubakeur is suggesting we hand over our abandoned churches to the Muslim faith. If he’d rather, we could just leave!” Ex-minister Christiane Boutin, founder of the Christian Democratic Party, tweeted “How dare he suggest we transform our own churches into mosques! Boubakeur! Look where we are! Catholics, wake up!”
The Great Mosque of Paris sent out a press release on June 15th recanting these words and clarifying that, even if the renovation could potentially happen as it did in Clermont-Ferrand, there were no current plans or desire to repurpose the disused churches.
To many, the churches are not empty buildings. The steeples, rising high above rolling hills in the countryside, bear witness to the history of France. Perhaps minarets will help tell our future.
Be quiet. I am in Bodhgaya, and I am trying to have a religious experience. Everyone around me is doing it. The world is abuzz with chants. Trees are enshrined in pink and orange wreaths, rupees, marigolds and chocolate bars bestowed at the feet of miniature Bodhisattvas. In Bodhgaya, there are only a few ways to be. You can walk in a circle of contemplation (if you’re me, you don’t know what you’re doing, so you try to follow an enlightened-looking woman-monk until she looks back and realizes you’ve been trailing her and you feel bad that you’ve broken her focus). You can do sun salutations, but how long can you really keep those going? Or you can sit still and let the sounds and the colors and the rustle of fabrics wash over you.
I am rolling prayer beads between my fingers, but distracted by the thought that I left the rosary my grandmother so carefully packed for me back in Varanasi. Religious amulets collect dust in my bedroom. I am cross-legged and my foot is numb. If I move it, am I cheating? I think I’m sitting on a stick. I should be in a deeply transcendental stage by now. Last time I tried to meditate I fell asleep. I didn’t move for forty-five minutes so that felt pretty damn close. Om. Om. Om mani padme hum. Fuck.
The elaborate Buddhist rituals surprise me. In my mind, Buddhism is stripped of artifice, a sort of naked way of life that differentiates itself from other organized religion by virtue of its simplicity. But underneath all the ritual, the worship of the Bodhi tree and the Bodhisattvas is secondary. The millions of pilgrims who visit the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama come to find meaning, inner peace and happiness.
The place is a trigger, not a realization. It fosters focus. The devotees are here to become better people, not to idol-worship. They come to walk an ancient path to compassion.
I sit among them and hum along to the chants.
I only believe that Om is the sound of the universe because in Bodhgaya, thousands of voices sing it together and it’s hard to hear anything else.