In her office a few kilometers away, the city’s mayor, Jeanne Barseghian, reflects how her life has been turned upside down since the local authority accepted a request from Sahin and her Turkish Islamic organization for a grant of 2 , 5 million euros to build what would be one of the European countries. larger mosques.
The answer, they say, is politics – particularly the ongoing campaign between President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen ahead of next year’s elections. Both are eager to show how tough they are on Islamists, illegal immigrants and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“We were surprised at the intensity of it all,” said the bearded Sahin, as construction of the 32 million euro complex in a former warehouse district continues thanks to donations from loyalists linked to the Turkish diaspora organization Milli Gorus (National Vision). of which he is the regional chief. “This is political persecution. In elections, people get used to it, and today we are the target. ”
The controversy erupted last month after Gérald Darmanin, Macron’s Minister of the Interior, accused Barseghian – from the opposition Green Party Europe Ecologie Les Verts – funding for a mosque under construction by an organization that “supports political Islam”.
In January, Milli Gorus, along with three other groups, refused to sign the “Charter of the principles of French Islam” promoted by the Macron government as part of its fight against extremism and Islamist “separatism”.
The charter affirms the compatibility of Islam with the values of the French Republic, rejecting political Islam, denying the notion of apostasy and defending gender equality. Sahin said Milli Gorus did not sign it just because his representatives had not been consulted and he did not agree with the wording.
Barseghian, attacked by the right as an Islamist sympathizer and by the Armenians for supporting the Turkish project despite her Armenian heritage, said she was “shocked” by Darmanin’s accusation, which sparked threats and hate mail.
“The government clearly wants to criticize and attack the Greens” before the polls, she said. ” [But] it is a very dangerous game to launch ourselves into subjects such as secularism, republican principles and religion. It divides the country and gives extremists a boost.
Darmanin then said he ordered a legal challenge to the planned grant, while government spokesman Gabriel Attal went so far as to say that Milli Gorus, whose presence in Western Europe is centered on Germany, did not “No reason to organize activities or to exist in France”. .
Hombeline du Parc, a local politician with Le Pen’s National Rally party, also harshly criticized the mayor and said Milli Gorus, who was founded in 1969, was beholden to Erdogan. “People can practice their religion, we have no problem with that,” she said. “But foreign interference is unacceptable.”
Samim Akgonul, head of the Turkish studies department at the University of Strasbourg, said the issue was a political giveaway for Darmanin as he sought to punish Milli Gorus for refusing to follow the line.
“The French Minister of the Interior was seeking revenge, and he found her in Strasbourg on the financing of the mosque,” he said. “Technically speaking, the decision [to fund it] was correct. Politically speaking, it was a very awkward decision.
The mosque project, which would serve some 30,000 people of Turkish origin in Strasbourg, was approved in 2013, and the foundation stone was laid in 2017 in the presence of senior French officials and the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister.
Unlike the rest of France, where strict secular rules dating back to 1905 prohibit public funding of new religious buildings, state subsidies are allowed for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish places of worship in Alsace and Moselle because they did part of Germany at the time. Strasbourg, the capital of the eastern region, subsequently extended the exemption to Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism and others.
In an open letter to the people of Strasbourg addressing the dispute, Barseghian said the city has spent more than € 22m on grants for places of worship since 2008, including € 3.7m for mosques. “I deeply regret that our city and its inhabitants have suffered the consequences of these controversies which have aroused fear, hatred and resentment,” she wrote.
Sahin, whose father emigrated from Turkey to work at the Peugeot factory in the city of Mulhouse and who remembers that Muslims borrowed a church there for Friday prayers, was philosophical about the project he defended.
He said the idea for a mosque that could accommodate 2,500 worshipers was to emulate Strasbourg’s other major religious buildings, including its Roman Catholic cathedral. “We said, why not do something similar, so that the Muslim culture and the Alsatian culture can get married?”
He and two senior Milli Gorus officials visiting from Germany agreed the organization was religiously conservative, but denied that anyone affiliated with it had ever committed a terrorist act.
“What concerns us is that when everything is going well, we are a French organization,” he said. “But when there is a problem, they talk about our origins. . . On the one hand, they ask for integration – even though we have already integrated it – but when something is wrong with Islam, they say “You are Turks”. However, I even have an Alsatian accent.
Milli Gorus has now withdrawn his grant application and launched a new fundraising campaign. “We wanted to finish it in 2022 or 2023,” Sahin said. “But I think it will now take until 2024 or 2025.”