DRANCY, France (Reuters) - A French mosque, whose imam says he has received death threats over his promotion of dialogue with Jews, reopened for Friday prayers after it was forced to close down this week due to disruptive protests.
The mosque in Drancy, a suburb to the north of Paris, has been the focus of tension for weeks with a small group of protesters keeping up a noisy barrage of criticism against the imam Hassen Chalghoumi.
“We’ve been facing really enormous pressure for five or six weeks now,” Chalghoumi told reporters before Friday prayers. “We want peace, we want calm. These people aren’t welcome here.”
The mosque was closed for security reasons on Tuesday after the association which runs it said that protesters had interrupted services.
As Chalghoumi spoke, a group of around 30 protesters gathered outside the fence of the mosque, facing off with fluorescent-vested security staff preventing them from entering.
The problems at the Drancy mosque have underlined the volatile mix of prejudice, integration problems and fears over radical Islamist extremism that have often plagued France’s large Muslim community.
A spokesman for the Grand Mosque of Paris called for a return to calm in Drancy and deplored the manner in which the protesters had “set themselves up as religious police.”
Chalghoumi gained widespread prominence in France earlier this year when he backed government calls for a ban on full-face veils called burqas or niqabs, provoking stiff opposition from some local Muslims.
He has also received death threats in the past over his support for dialogue with Jews.
According to some reports, hardline protestors broke into the mosque in January and threatened the imam, although the protestors themselves deny this and accuse Chalghoumi of lying about the incident.
“This is just whingeing,” Abdel Hakim Sefrioui, the leader of the protest, told Reuters Television, saying the imam was backed by the CRIF, France’s main Jewish association.
“He’s got the whole of the CRIF behind him, and they’re writing his declarations for him,” he said. “The videos which came out showed there was a peaceful and responsible debate.”
The Friday prayers followed a demonstration on Thursday in front of the local police headquarters where dozens of people held a counter-protest to call for an end to the disruption.
“We’re in a democracy,” Ahmed Guettouche, a local councilor in Drancy said on Friday. “They can express themselves but they should leave the silent majority in peace.”
Barred from entering the mosque, Sefrioui led a separate prayer ceremony for his supporters in the parking lot but tensions with the Drancy congregation were evident as a group of women chanted “Leave us in peace!” and “Liars!” at his group.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; editing by Noah Barkin