VIERZON, France — When the Rev. Alain Krauth preached to his dwindling flock at Mass last Sunday, the subject was real estate. But it was also Christian charity, tolerance and, indirectly, the gnawing malaise in France over an increasingly visible Muslim minority.
The issue was Saint-Eloi's, a graceless 1950s-vintage church on the edge of this declining French city 150 miles south of Paris. With six churches to maintain and fewer faithful every year, Roman Catholic authorities decided they could no longer afford Saint-Eloi's. It must be sold, Krauth lamented, and if one of the prospective buyers is a peaceful Muslim association looking for a new mosque, then so be it.
"If moderate Muslims buy Saint-Eloi's, we can only be happy that the Muslims of Vierzon are able to celebrate their religion," he said in an interview explaining his sermon. "If on the other hand they were extremists, that would be another question, knowing that there are extremists in all religions."
But Krauth's open-mindedness was not shared by all. After an item in the local newspaper, Le Berry Republicain, the murmurs began. Cafe conversations proliferated. Krauth said he got a dozen calls. Some were polite, others not. His office received about 20 e-mails. Some commended him; others asked how he could betray a place of Christian worship to the Muslims.
Comments popped up on the Internet, meanwhile, some of them raw. One suggested throwing a pig into the church to discourage Muslims from making the purchase. Alerted, reporters and cameramen from Paris showed up to ask questions about the rise of Islam. Before long the proposed sale of Saint-Eloi's escalated into the latest example of France's difficulty in dealing with a growing minority of people born into families of Muslim tradition.
For Andre Beriot, who lives in the Vierzon suburb of Marmagne, the prospect of selling off Saint-Eloi's for conversion into a mosque was just another sign of what he views as a swift decline of French civilization due to the influx of immigrants, many of them Muslim, over the past four decades.
"In spite of 2,000 years of history, in spite of a strong cement made of its Christian roots and its Greco-Latin culture, it will have taken only two generations to undermine the foundations in an almost irreversible way," he wrote in a letter to the editor in Le Berry Republican. "The French nation now feels condemned to adapt to outside civilizations ... our leaders have imposed on us an immigration that they were unable or unwilling to control."
The FN's intervention provides an interesting illustration of how the party manipulates secularist rhetoric in order to uphold the supposed Christian essence of French civilisation against the threat of Islam. The ex-leftist Bertrand Dutheil de La Rochère, who is now the FN's adviser on the Republic and secularism, is quoted as saying that it would be an abuse of secularist principles to argue that the sale of the church is a private matter in which the state has no business interfering. Secularism, he asserts, has to be understood in its social and historical context:
"For more than a millennium and a half Christianity, specifically Catholicism, has been the state religion of France and of 'the majority of the French'. So the landscapes of the French nation are steeped in this, along with every fibre of its culture. Also, while the practice of all faiths is free, none can appear to substitute itself for the realities of the nation's long-term historical structures. Therefore, to allow a church ... to be allocated to another faith would be precisely a symbol, if a small one, of such a substitution."
The FN has endorsed a financial appeal launched by the organisation Maison Commune with the aim of buying Saint-Eloi's in order to save it from the Muslims. The FN quotes Maison Commune as stating:
"Projects for transforming churches into mosques are symbolic provocations that are particularly dangerous for our society, which is sick from immigration, multiculturalism and the economic crisis. The substitution of one faith for another in a religious building can only be experienced as an act of aggression by some and of conquest by others. Islam in France should not try to take over Christian places of worship and those who promote these projects bear the responsibility for a dangerous deterioration in the social climate of our country."