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French town creates ‘Esplanade of Religions’ for greater understanding

August 6, 2012

PARIS

It’s almost like the late Beatle John Lennon might have imagined things: different faith groups worshiping side by side as a means to living life in peace.

Welcome then to Bussy Saint-Georges, a French town that is creating just this scenario. Located 30 kilometers from Paris, the town has provided land where two Buddhist temples, a mosque, and a synagogue will exist alongside one another, as Bussy Saint-Georges’ long-term mayor Hugues Rondeau pursues his dream of a cultural city.

“Ours is a town with people who come from all over the world, and they come with their religious cultures,” Rondeau told ENInews. “We start from the principle that these cultures are good for our town and that it’s necessary to organize means for their expression and to encourage social dialogue.”

Bussy Saint-Georges’ first temple (a Taiwanese pagoda which now lays claim to being Europe’s biggest Buddhist pagoda), was inaugurated last month and has been open to the public since the beginning of July.

The mosque is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, and a Laotian temple and the synagogue will be inaugurated by 2013, according to the mayor’s office. The new “esplanade of religions,” as it is being called, is a few hundred meters from the town’s Catholic church, Notre Dame du Val de Bussy, constructed in the 1990s.

The whole concept might seem strange in a country that has a law on the separation of church and state and which is fiercely proud of its laicite, or secularism. But Rondeau says that France is changing and Bussy Saint-George is a reflection of the transformation.

“This is a multi-faith town with many religions cohabiting, and so we have to practice an intelligent laicite that respects the neutrality of the state but doesn’t deny or reject religious faith,” Rondeau told ENInews.

During the recent French presidential elections, secularism became a divisive issue as different politicians used it to bolster their support among certain groups. The leader of the far-Right National Front party, Marine Le Pen, spoke of an “invasion” of Islam and was seen as using the secularism law to criticize certain practices such as halal meat production.  

Rondeau, who has been Bussy Saint-Georges’ mayor since 1998, said the idea for the “esplanade” began when he was approached by different faith groups, who reacted well to his suggestion that all the places of worship be in the same area. The town would sell the land for the project to the associations concerned, and funding for construction would come from the congregations themselves.

The town’s support comes with the condition that the buildings will be partly open to the public, with cultural activities, libraries and meeting places such as tea rooms.

According to the mayor, the venture is well-suited to Bussy Saint-Georges as the town is what the French call “une ville nouvelle” (a new town), planned from the outset. In the 1980s, Bussy Saint-Georges had only 700 inhabitants but it has grown over the past 30 years to more than 25,000. Its structured development has been aimed at meeting the needs of the population, who currently happen to be 45 percent Asian, a consequence of immigration and family re-unification.

The mayor, a Christian, says there are practical as well as cultural reasons for having several places of worship in the same area.

“We thought it would be good idea to have a space where facilities, such as parking spaces, could be shared,” he said. “That makes perfect sense on a practical level.”

He also expects the “esplanade” to bring tourists to little known Bussy Saint-Georges. For critics who question its creation in France, the mayor has a ready answer.

“Religion is a part of culture, and this cultural aspect could attract visitors who are interested in learning more about different faiths,” he told ENInews. “At Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, there are believers who go to pray, but there are many tourists as well. A beautiful temple or mosque will also become a cultural reference here.”

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