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Imam with Mission of Understanding Becomes the Target of Hate

February 8th 2010

Islamic Topics - Imam Hassen Chalghoumi
Imam Hassen Chalghoumi pictured at center

Imam Hassen Chalghoumi has spent his life preaching inter-faith harmony from his mosque in Paris's poor and fractious northeastern suburbs. Chalghoumi works with Jewish leaders, inviting them to his home and urging young people of all religions to embrace harmony in place of hatred.

Now, he finds himself the target of the same hatred and intolerance that he has dedicated his life to combating. His car had fuel poured on it; he has received anonymous death threats on his cell phone; people have stopped him in the street warning him that he has “gone too far”; his house is under police watch and he is shadowed by a bodyguard.

Tunisian-born Chalghoumi, 35, has become the focal point in the rising tension between Jews and Muslims in France caused by disturbances in the Middle East.

"There are those who are not happy with what I do," Chalghoumi was quoted as saying. "They say, 'He goes to the synagogue, shakes hands with the rabbi while Israel is bombing the Palestinians.' Some (Muslim) youths don't want to shake my hand."

French officials have provided no count of the number of Jews attacked, synagogues firebombed or vandalism. Jewish organizations have counted between 58 and 97 acts, depending on whether hate e-mails and threatening phone calls are included.

The Coordination Forum for Countering Anti-Semitism (CFCA) released its 2009 Summary this week. It stated that there were more anti-Semitic attacks in 2009 than in any year since World War II. More incidents of anti-Semitism occurred in France in the first six months of 2009 than in all of 2008.

The increase of incidents in early 2009 was thought to be connected to Israel's military operation in the Gaza Strip. Many Jews have shown reluctance to wear Jewish symbols such as the yarmulke or the visible Star of David for fear of being targets of violence.

In 2006, Chalghoumi attended a ceremony commemorating the Holocaust at the Drancy deportation memorial, and called on Muslims to respect the memory of Jewish deportees. For his efforts, his home was vandalized.

Despite all the pressure to stop his mission of building trust and cooperation between the two communities, Chalghoumi intends to continue.  Giving up "would mean that I stop everything, abandon the dialogue," Chalghoumi said. "I've worked three years for a rapprochement. I feel it is going up in thin air."

"We're not just working for rapprochement, but to take away the hate," Chalghoumi said.

Cuting Edge contributor Joseph K. Grieboski is founder and president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. 

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