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.
The Interior Ministry and most academic specialists have estimated the community in France numbers at least 5 million, the largest in Europe. While less than 10 percent of the population, Muslims often end up segregated into suburban neighborhoods, where Muslim customs such as veils for women and fasting for the holy month of Ramadan become the norm, eclipsing France's long-established Christian traditions.
Jean-Francois Cope, who is running for leadership of former President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative coalition, the Union for a Popular Movement, suggested recently that French children were being prevented from snacking after school in some quarters by "thugs" posted on the sidewalk outside during Ramadan.
When observers pointed out that Ramadan has fallen during summer holidays for the past two years, Cope was widely mocked. But his followers insisted he was calling attention to a genuine problem even if the details may have been apocryphal.
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The fuss over Vierzon — probably more heated in the national media than in the city itself — also came to a boil in part because, only a week before, a dozen young Muslims were arrested in Paris, Cannes and Strasbourg on charges of preparing homemade bombs for a terrorist attack. Some of those arrested were recent converts, born into families of Christian tradition but attracted by militant Islam and perhaps involved in a recent attack on a Jewish-owned business.
"France no longer recognizes its children," lamented Guillaume Roquette in an editorial in the Figaro weekly magazine. "How can the country of Victor Hugo, secularism and family reunions produce jihadists capable of attacking a kosher grocery store?"
In addition, the powerful symbol of a church becoming a mosque recalled sensitive historical precedents, such as the transformation of Hagia Sophia after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in the 15th century or, closer to home, the sight of French-built churches put to use as mosques after Algeria's independence in 1962.
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."
Andre Rodier, a Vierzon resident, said many people here are buzzing "all over the place" about the prospective sale of Saint-Eloi's, but not openly, out of fear they might be considered anti-Muslim. In a telephone conversation, he said the best solution would be for city hall to buy the property and then hold a referendum on what should be done with it. A recreation center would be one good idea, he suggested.
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Vierzon's unease with the role of Muslims in its society is shared by many in France, and elsewhere in Europe. A poll in February showed 77 percent of Dutch people, 75 percent of Germans, 68 percent of French and 65 percent of Britons thought Muslims were having trouble integrating into the European societies where they had elected to live.
Against that background, Cardinal Peter Turkson, a Ghanaian, showed a U.S.-made video at a recent Roman Catholic synod in Rome warning that declining birthrates among Christian women raised the risk that Muslim minorities might become dominant in Europe over the next several decades.
A group of Vierzon's Muslim faithful, exiting the small Rahma Mosque after evening prayers, said they indeed had visited Saint-Eloi's, which is on the market for about $200,000, and had discussed buying the building to accommodate a growing community for Friday prayers. But a Rahma stalwart, who wanted to be identified only as Mimoune, said the idea went nowhere because the community does not have the money needed and little chance of raising it.
One difficulty facing Vierzon's Muslims, residents pointed out, is that they are divided into Moroccan, Algerian and Turkish groups that do not easily work together. Another is that Europe's economic crisis has hit hard in Vierzon, among Muslims as well as others, and many have been laid off from jobs in the automotive parts factories that used to be the local mainstay.
In addition, according to residents, Muslim leaders have pulled back since even the vague prospect of their interest in the church produced questioning on a national scale.
"We talked about it among ourselves, like that, but nothing was ever decided," Mimoune added. "But why is everybody so concerned about Saint-Eloi's? Because Muslims might buy it?"