About a third of Muslim religious leaders practising in France do not speak French and are to be offered language tuition from the start of the next academic year, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin has said.

"Out of 1200 imams, 400 do not speak our language," Villepin told Canal Plus television on Tuesday. "These are the ones the courses are aimed at."

 

In December, Villepin proposed university tuition for foreign-born imams to teach them the French language, as well as law, civics and history.

 

The initiative is intended to encourage the development of a home-grown version of Islam, and lessen its dependence on foreign governments and institutions.

 

About three-quarters of imams practising in France come from abroad.

 

Villepin said he was not opposed to foreign imams administering in France, but added: "We must make sure they can get to know our practices, language and culture. That will take many years of work."

 

The number of Muslims in France is estimated at five million - nearly 10% of the population.

 

Dutch initiative

On Wednesday the Dutch government said it would provide $1.95 million (€1.5 million) to train imams at Amsterdam's Free University with the aim of starting the first course in September.

There are five million Muslims
living in France

The capital's main university had been chosen because it had experience in teaching Islamic studies, Education Minister Mark Rutte said.

It was necessary for imams to be trained in the Netherlands rather than being brought in from abroad, as many current imams showed poor understanding of Dutch society, he said.

The plan foresees that the first trained imams will graduate at the end of 2006.

Other universities were rejected because their proposals did not meet government requirements or were not in line with cabinet thinking, he said.

Pressure for imams to be trained in the Netherlands has risen sharply after the 2 November murder of controversial film maker, Theo van Gogh.