PARIS — Hemmed in and closely watched by police, hundreds of Muslims unrolled rugs and prayed outdoors Friday in the busy streets of a Paris suburb to protest the closure of their prayer hall.
The show of strength by throngs of worshippers in Clichy highlighted a long-standing issue for France’s Muslim community, estimated at 5 million people: a shortage of mosques.
Such protests aren’t without risk of a backlash, especially in the politically heated atmosphere of France’s upcoming presidential election.
Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has previously decried street prayers, part of her anti-immigrant, anti-Islam outlook.
Clichy Muslims had been using a prayer hall rented from City Hall. But the town’s mayor now wants to turn that space into a multimedia library for the town’s 60,000 residents.
City Hall refused to renew the three-year lease when it expired last June and, after a court battle, closed down the prayer hall last week with help from French police.
City Hall says Muslims can worship at a new Islamic cultural and prayer center, already used by hundreds of people, that the town inaugurated in May 2016.
However, the Muslim group that helped organize Friday’s protest and which is calling for another demonstration Sunday says the new mosque is too small and remote.
The building is a disused former office block that City Hall “turned into a mosque by throwing down a few rugs,” said Smail El-Baz, a spokesman for the group.
He warned that the closure of their prayer hall could drive worshippers underground and increase the risk of them becoming radicalized.
The group wants its prayer hall reopened until the end of Ramadan in July and space for the building of a new mosque.