Bucking French Tradition, City Sets Up a Kind of Holy Quarter

April 2, 2013

BUSSY SAINT-GEORGES, France — Set above a sweep of green farmland, the crumbling stone chapel at the center of this village met the spiritual requirements of its Roman Catholic residents for nearly four centuries. But Bussy Saint-Georges is no longer just a village.

Tile-roofed homes in the new city, which counted a mere 500 souls in 1985 but grew to 25,000.

It is now a “new city” of 25,000, a planned development of hundreds of cream-colored apartment complexes, tile-roofed houses, schools, banks, shops and parks, linked to nearby Paris with a highway and a regional train. A great many of its residents are now immigrants from the former colonies of North and West Africa, the Antilles, China, Laos and elsewhere — a new France in concentrate — and the city’s religious needs are no longer as modest.

And so at the edge of town, an “Esplanade of the Religions” is under construction, a sort of holy quarter in the fields that includes a mosque, a synagogue, a Laotian Buddhist pagoda and a $20 million Taiwanese Buddhist temple, said to be Europe’s largest. Nearby, a small cross already overlooks the city from atop the 115-foot glass spire of an enormous Roman Catholic church, built at the turn of the century about a mile from the old chapel.

“I’ve had some bad ideas in my career,” said the city’s mayor, Hugues Rondeau, who first imagined the cluster of faiths. “On this one, I think I had a good idea.” The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization agrees, hailing Bussy Saint-Georges as a “city for interfaith dialogue.”

In 1985, when the government decreed the village a new city — part of a stretch of state-planned developments east of Paris — Bussy Saint-Georges counted a mere 500 souls. Yet people keep coming, drawn by the real estate prices and the bucolic setting less than 20 miles from Paris. There are Catholics, to be sure, but also Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Protestant evangelicals of various bents.

Yet, for all its designed conveniences, Bussy Saint-Georges was drawn up by state planners in accordance with “laïcité,” France’s stringent brand of official secularism, and prayer spaces were not included; the faithful were left to worship in municipal halls, trailers, outside the town or not at all.

The new places of worship have not received public financing, which would be illegal. But as part of a planned city, they sit on land that was the state’s to sell, and Mr. Rondeau spent years urging the government to sell the parcels to religious groups.

“French-style secularism can often be a caricature,” said Mr. Rondeau, 45, a practicing Catholic who favors flashy suits and whose views on secularism differ sharply from those of most public servants. (Open criticism of laïcité is exceptionally rare from French officials, who are more likely to brandish religion, and especially Islam, as a divisive threat to society. But some critics contend that laïcité has become a religion unto itself.)

The Esplanade of the Religions is intended as a “factor of peace” and of “sociological stability” for what has become a city of immigrants, said Mr. Rondeau, who has been mayor since 1998. Much as Bussy Saint-Georges is itself a sort of test-tube city, the project aspires to serve as a “laboratory” for interfaith dialogue, he said.

Local religious groups were initially doubtful, but they have grown quite fond of Mr. Rondeau’s idea, they say.

In an effort to project openness, the mosque was designed around a courtyard, with a cultural center open to all. In a departure from tradition, tours of the prayer hall will be available to non-Muslims, said Farid Chaoui, who is vice president of the Muslim association behind the mosque.

The group intends to hire an imam to preach in French, not Arabic, for the 500 people expected at Friday Prayer, Mr. Chaoui said. (Currently, a local doctor officiates at prayer services, held in a rented trailer.)

“We’re for cohabitation” with other religions, including the Jews whose synagogue will go up next door, “and we’re very optimistic,” Mr. Chaoui said.

So, too, is Guy Benarousse, the local rabbi. He said he had grown weary of questions about whether the Muslims and Jews would get along. No, probably not, he deadpans; he will probably have to call in missiles from Israel and raze the mosque. (Local Jews now pray in a trailer across the street from the plot of land where the synagogue will go up.)

Guy Benarousse, a local rabbi who says he is tired of questions about whether Muslims and Jews will get along.

“To show everyone that living together is a nonevent, it’s a beautiful thing,” Mr. Benarousse said.

Local Muslims came to a recent tree-planting service at the site of the future synagogue, along with a group from the Taiwanese Buddhist temple. The Buddhists — dressed in heavy ocher robes, their heads shaved — also visited the Catholic church in January, and a local priest attended a service at the temple for Lunar New Year, beneath the benevolent gaze of a 10-foot-tall Buddha sculptured in white Burmese jade and detailed in gold leaf and gemstones.

“All the religions here, all of us are good friends,” said the Venerable Shih Manchien, the head nun at the temple, an airy complex of concrete and varnished oak that serves as the European headquarters of the Fo Guang Shan order.

But with the exception of the temple, which was financed largely by Fo Guang Shan Taiwan, raising money for the other prayer sites has proved difficult. Only $130,000 has been raised for the synagogue since fund-raising started a few years back, less than 20 percent of the total, and construction has yet to begin. Construction on the mosque began about two and a half years ago, but $650,000 more must still be raised, and the structure is little more than concrete walls and mud.

Public financing would help, religious leaders said.

“We’re in France, we understand,” said Mr. Chaoui, the Muslim leader, who is French-Algerian. “We’re living this laïcité problem.”

The Esplanade of the Religions has its critics among townspeople. Some deride the project as a sort of religious theme park in the image of Disneyland Paris, which is just two stops down the regional train line. Others have accused Mr. Rondeau of kowtowing to supposed religious extremists, and Muslims in particular.

“We’re letting ourselves be taken over,” fretted Cécile, a sprightly woman of 78 who was running the bar at a local brasserie on a recent afternoon. (She declined to give her last name, given the delicacy of the subject.)

She was dismayed that the mayor would assist any religious group in the construction of a place of worship. “Because we’re in France,” Cécile exclaimed, where laïcité is law.

Mr. Rondeau countered that he has modeled Bussy Saint-Georges as an “American-style suburb,” where the avenues are wide, the homes are boxy and the religious discourse is open and lively. American suburbia is “reassuring sociologically,” he asserted.

To be sure, Bussy Saint-Georges less resembles the pastoral village it once was than a planned development. But in keeping with a French tradition that precedes even laïcité, which became law in 1905, the bells of the new church can be heard ringing out each day over the Esplanade of the Religions and the condominiums next door.


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