French school trains Muslim imams

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About 220 students from across France are learning to recite the Quran deep in the wooded hills of Burgundy.

Aspiring French imams are training students in hopes to minister to the country’s large Muslim population.

The European Institute of Human Sciences de Saint-Leger-de-Fougeret, teaches students to recite the Quran and study Islamic theology and Arabic literature.

“When I came here last year, I did not know how to read, write, or speak Arabic. Now in my second year, I am thankful to god,” said a female student.

“I have studied at this blessed school for five years and now I am in the graduate studies doing the masters. We are now ready to be Imams in the reality where we live,” said Imam Mohammed bin Omar, a graduate.

France’s Muslim population is estimated to be from between 3.5 million and 6.0 million, though there is little hard evidence as to how many are practicing. In any event, France’s Muslim community is the largest in Western Europe.

“Students are Europeans citizens from second or third generations. They usually stay with us here for two years first to learn Arabic, three years to study Shariah and two years to memorize the Quran,” said the institute’s director Zuhair Mahmoud.

The school depends heavily on fees of about 3,400 euros ($4,400) a year -- board and lodging included.

Apart from the rural setting, the atmosphere in the run-down prefabricated corridors of the institute is like that of any other college.

The initiative to build the school started 20 years ago in a suburb of Paris when the union of Islamic organizations transformed a childrens playground into a institute that trains imams.