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Muslims Could Face Arrest in New French Ban on Praying in the Streets

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"the street is for driving, not praying"

Muslims pray in the streets of Paris. (Photo credit: AFP)

Muslims kneeling to pray on the streets of Paris could face arrest under a new ban enacted Friday in the name of French secularism.

While the ban prohibits members of any religious faith from praying in the streets, it will particularly affect Muslims trying to complete their Friday midday prayers.

Overcrowded mosques often force followers to find room to unfurl prayer rugs and kneel on the street, their foreheads touching the ground, which French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said "hurts the sensitivities of many of our fellow citizens."

"My vigilance will be unflinching for the law to be applied. Praying in the street is not dignified for religious practice and violates the principles of secularism," Gueant told a French newspaper, the Daily Telegraph reported.

An agreement with the city will allow worshipers to use an empty former fire station as a makeshift prayer hall until construction on a new, larger mosque is completed in 2013.

Gueant suggested as many as 1,000 Muslims spill out into the Paris streets to pray in the afternoons, although other reports suggested the number was much higher.

Sheikh Mohamed salah Hamza, who is in charge of a Parisian mosques that regularly overflows, told the Telegraph he would obey the new law, but said he was "not entirely satisfied" with the new location.

"We are not cattle," Hamza said.

Muslim public prayer has been a hot button issue in France: In December, an elected leader of the conservative National Front party compared the practice to the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II "without the tanks or soldiers," calling it a "political act of fundamentalists."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy denounced the comments at the time, but polling showed many French citizens were supportive of the remarks.

Gueant has said a countrywide ban is next, saying "the street is for driving, not praying."

Gueant came under fire in April for saying France's "growing" Muslim population "poses a problem."

The new legislation is the latest in France's crackdown on public signs of religiosity -- in April, France banned Muslim women from wearing full face coverings. Jewish skullcaps, Christian crosses and Muslim headscarves may not be worn in public schools, and public funding of places of worship is illegal.

Gueant repeated his determination to strictly enforce the ban.

"We could go as far as using force if necessary, but it's a scenario I don't believe will happen, as dialogue [with local religious leaders] has born fruit," he said.

Still, Abdul Sidiqi, a Muslim, called it "another example of the government clamping down on Muslims, and the Muslim way of life."

"If they do not want to see us in the street, then they should provide more mosques," Sidiqi told the Daily Mail. "What is going on is scandalous. The government is creating problems which do not really exist to put us in our place."

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