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Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were violent, including lethal, attacks and other religiously motivated incidents directed against Christians, Jews, and Muslims. According to government, Jewish and Muslim sources, the number of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts decreased from 2015. Jews continued to emigrate to Israel due to anti-Semitic sentiment throughout the country, according to Jewish leaders, but at a lower rate than in 2015. Representatives from the Jewish and Muslim communities, the Protestant Federation, and the Catholic Conference of Bishops took steps to condemn intolerance and promote interfaith dialogue. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to the Ministry of Interior, based on complaints filed with police, the number of anti-Muslim incidents (including threats and attacks) decreased by 58 percent to 182 cases, from 429 in 2015. Anti-Semitic incidents declined by 59 percent to 335 cases, from 808 in 2015. Anti-Christian incidents, however, increased by 17 percent to 949, compared with 810 in 2015. The Ministry of Interior stated the acts against Christian religious sites represented 90 percent of all attacks against places of worship, and that not all of these incidents had a religious motivation. (399 were linked to vandalism, 191 to theft, 14 to Satanism, and 25 to anarchism.)

Both the National Observatory Against Islamophobia (ONCI), a part of the CFCM, and CCIF confirmed the ministry’s statistics regarding a decrease in reported anti-Muslim acts in 2016 compared to 2015. The two organizations cautioned, however, against equating the decrease in reported acts with increased tolerance for Muslims. Instead, the ONCI pointed to “institutional discrimination in schools, by the police, and by local authorities” as cause for concern, while the CCIF highlighted that victims were “reticent” to report anti-Muslim acts due to a loss in confidence in the justice system. The CCIF warned that, by conflating fighting terrorism with promoting anti-Muslim policies, the state of emergency since the November 2015 attacks disproportionally targeted Muslims. The ONCI report stated anti-Muslim acts were mainly directed at mosques and women wearing veils and headscarves. ONCI stated that anti-Islamic hate speech on the internet had been growing since the July 14 attack in Nice.

In 2016, based on information provided by the interior ministry, ONCI reported 182 anti-Muslim incidents, comprised of 64 acts against Muslims and 118 verbal threats.

On July 26, Adel Kermiche and Abdel-Malik Nabil Petitjean attacked a Catholic church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, killing a priest, Father Jacques Hamel, by cutting his throat and seriously wounding a male worshipper during a Mass. Police shot and killed the two assailants. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, which was widely condemned by the local and national authorities and community and religious leaders. On July 26, President Hollande expressed support to Catholics and described the priest’s death as a “desecration of the French Republic, which guarantees freedom of conscience.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported 28 cases where members were physically attacked during the year. On June 24 in Bordeaux, two Jehovah’s Witnesses, Huguette Dias and Monique Labecot, were proselytizing door-to-door when a man approached them shouting insults. The man kicked Labecot in the back of the head and punched Dias in the face, which resulted in her falling and hitting her head on the ground. Dias died as a result of her injuries. Police arrested the perpetrator and placed him in the psychiatric unit of a prison pending legal proceedings. A judge of the Bordeaux court was investigating the case at year’s end. The second victim, Monique Labecot, was scheduled to appear before the investigating judge in early 2017. The assailant had not been formally charged and no trial date was set by year’s end.

On January 11, a 15-year-old Turkish teenager of Kurdish origin stabbed a Jewish teacher with a machete in Marseille, wounding him slightly on the shoulder. The attack took place as the 35-year-old teacher, who was wearing a yarmulke, was on his way to work at the Franco-Hebraic Institute. Police arrested the assailant shortly after the incident. On January 13, authorities placed him in pretrial detention and charged him with “attempted murder on the grounds of religion and terrorist sympathizing.” On March 2, 2017, the Paris juvenile court found the attacker guilty of terrorism, attempted murder, and anti-Semitism and sentenced him to seven years in prison. The incident sparked widespread debate among the country’s Jewish leaders on whether they should advise Jews to refrain, for safety’s sake, from wearing a yarmulke in public.

On March 5 in Paris, a 13-year-old boy wearing a yarmulke was attacked by three men who, according to the boy’s description, appeared to be North African. The perpetrators shouted anti-Semitic slogans at the boy, such as “dirty Jew,” took off his yarmulke, and beat him. The victim suffered bruises to the face and filed a complaint to the police. The independent anti-Semitism watchdog NGO National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism denounced and condemned the attack and urged police to make efforts to identify the attackers. Police had made no arrests by year’s end.

On July 20, a Muslim man, while yelling “Allahu Akbar,” stabbed a mother and her three young daughters near the commune of Largne-Monteglin. The assailant, whom authorities charged with attempted murder, said he carried out the attack because he saw the father of the girls scratching his upper thigh in front of his wife.

On July 27, in an act of revenge one day after the killing of Father Jacques Hamel, a 33-year-old assailant in Barentin insulted, threatened, and hit a Senegalese Muslim man in his seventies. The victim’s children and three NGOs filed a lawsuit. There was no update on the case by year’s end.

According to statistics released by the NGO Jewish Agency for Israel, approximately 5,000 Jews emigrated from France to Israel during the year compared to 7,835 people in 2015. In total, 40,000 Jews emigrated since 2006, according to the agency. Some leaders in the Jewish community linked the continued emigration to anti-Semitism and violent acts against Jews. Commenting on the decline in emigration in 2016, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel office in Paris said emigration was not just a reaction to events in the country but was also a result of religious or political motivations. He also cited authorities’ efforts to protect French Jews and the generalization of terror attacks to the population of the country as a whole, which “paradoxically” restored confidence among Jews, because they were not the only target. According to the agency’s estimates released in December, 3,000 French Jews who had emigrated to Israel over the previous three years returned to France.

The annual report of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, an advisory body to the prime minister, included the results of a poll conducted by the BVA Institute, a research and consulting company, on January 4-11, involving face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of more than 1,000 residents over the age of 18. According to the poll, 41 percent of the respondents believed Jews had more influence over finances in their country than other groups, and 20 percent thought Jews had too much power in France. According to the same poll, 34 percent of respondents had a negative image of Islam and 50 percent of them considered it a threat to national identity. The report also cited persistent societal rejection of Islamic religious practices such as praying and women wearing a veil.

According to a Pew Research survey in May, 85 percent of respondents had a very or mostly favorable opinion of Jewish people. According to the same poll, 67 percent of respondents had a very or mostly favorable opinion of Muslims.

An April IFOP poll, however, found that 68 percent of respondents believed Muslims were not well integrated into French society and 47 percent considered the presence of unintegrated Muslim communities to be a threat to the country’s national identity. According to another IFOP/Fiducial poll conducted September 16-20, 56 percent of respondents considered “Islam is not compatible with the values of French society,” which included the value of secularism and keeping religion out of the public sphere. The majority said they opposed outward symbols of Islam, such as women wearing a veil (63 percent) and the construction of mosques (52 percent), two highly politicized and controversial issues in France. The same poll found 53 percent of respondents agreed that Muslims were becoming the scapegoats of society’s problems.

On April 20, hundreds of students participated in a “Hijab Day” at the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) in Paris, one of the country’s most selective institutions of higher learning. The organizers of the event invited fellow students to cover their hair to “demystify” the headscarf and to end the stigma around those who wear them. Politicians and students criticizing the event charged the participants were proselytizing. Sciences Po administrators stated it neither prohibited nor supported the event.

On April 30, fire destroyed a Muslim prayer hall in Corsica, according to media reports. According to Ajaccio’s public prosecutor, the fire was probably a criminal act, based on hydrocarbon traces found inside the hall. No one was injured in the fire. President Hollande issued a statement on April 30 expressing his solidarity with the Muslims of Corsica and vowing a swift investigation, which was still ongoing at the end of the year.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 23 the local Chalons-en-Champagne branch of the labor union the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) organized a demonstration to protest a decision by the town’s mayor to provide the Witnesses with the use of a community center free of charge for a religious ceremony on Good Friday. According to the Witnesses, a dozen CGT activists stood in front of the center and blocked access to it in a hostile manner. As a result, the mayor found another hall for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to use for their commemoration.

In July the European Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion that Micropole, an information technology consultancy company, unlawfully discriminated against a Muslim woman whom it fired in 2009 for not complying with the company’s request to remove her headscarf when meeting with clients. The final ruling was set to take place early in 2017.

In August the mayor of Colombes, a Paris suburb, ordered the owner of a halal market, who leased the space from the housing authority, to adhere to the terms of the lease and stock additional products, including alcohol and pork, to serve non-Muslim, as well as Muslim, customers. Authorities threatened to close the store if the owner did not comply. The owner said he was “merely catering to the demands of his customers.” The mayor filed a lawsuit with the Paris court to try to close the store and the shop manager Soulemane Yalcin filed a countersuit to keep it open. The case had not been heard at year’s end.

On June 23, Muslim and Jewish community leaders announced at the National Assembly they were forming a joint commission to protect the practice of religious slaughter, which they said was under threat. CFCM President Anouar Kbibech said the joint committee would be “tasked with reviewing and working on the challenges common to both religions” in the face of attempts to limit the custom. Joel Mergui, president of the French Consistoire – the community organ responsible for providing Jewish religious services – said attacks against ritual slaughter were making some Jews question their future in the country.

In June the Paris Criminal Court charged writer Alain Soral with a 12,000 euro ($12,645) fine and a suspended prison sentence of six months for saying in a Facebook post in 2015 that the Nazis should have finished killing the Jews of Europe. A judge found Soral guilty of “justifying war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Le Figaro reported Tuesday. Soral had had multiple previous convictions for minimizing or mocking the Holocaust. The judge also ordered Soral to pay 2,000 euros ($2,107) to the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, which filed the complaint against Soral for his Facebook post.

On March 9, a Paris criminal court sentenced an activist to a two-month prison sentence for incitement to racial hatred and slander towards Jews following the publication of two messages on his Twitter account in April 2015. The tweets said Jews “were responsible for the killing of 30 million Christians in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1947;” and that “if Jewish people were not held accountable for their innumerous crimes, they would try to blame others.”

On July 28, the CFCM encouraged all Muslims in the country to attend their local Catholic church for Sunday Mass to express solidarity and sorrow with Christians after the terrorist killing of Father Hamel on July 26. According to press reports, Muslims across France answered the call, including more than 100 Muslims who were among the 2,000 attending a Mass at the cathedral of Rouen to pay tribute to the slain priest. Hundreds of people of many faiths marched together in towns across the country in tribute to Father Hamel on July 30, in solidarity and to reject terrorism associated with religion.

In January the CFCM called for an “open mosque weekend” across France, on the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Mosques throughout the country invited their non-Muslim neighbors in for tours, open prayer services, tea, and calligraphy courses over the weekend. The objective of the event, according to the CFCM, was to discuss Islam in a country shaken by jihadist attacks and to “create a convivial environment for the exchange of ideas between believers and their fellow citizens.” Of the 2,500 mosques in France, “several hundred” reportedly participated, although no official count was available. The CFCM called this “first open door a successful operation, both for the mosques and for the visitors” and said it would repeat the open house annually.

On March 18, the interfaith community held events in Toulouse and Montauban to commemorate the Jewish and military victims killed by Mohammed Merah in 2012. Interior Minister Cazeneuve attended the ceremony. During his speech, Cazeneuve renewed calls for Jews not to leave the country, stating, “France wants to hold French Jews close and not let them leave.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 68 acts of vandalism, an increase from 57 in 2015. They did not provide details on the incidents.

On June 8, the remains of a boar were found in front of a mosque in Nice. Police arrested two individuals for vandalism. On October 12, a Nice criminal court sentenced them to 80 hours of community service, a fine of 1,000 euros ($1,054) to be paid to a worship association, and a symbolic payment of one euro ($1.05) to three NGOs who had brought civil action.

On October 11, a boar’s head and skin were discovered in front of the same mosque in Nice. The imam filed a lawsuit against an unnamed assailant and police opened an investigation that was still pending at the end of the year.

Jewish and Muslim communities held a series of interfaith dialogues on November 25-27, an annual event. Jews and Muslims, along with government and community leaders, gathered in 30 different places of worship to discuss belief systems, recent government actions, and religious activities in an effort to facilitate communication, religious tolerance, and understanding between the two groups.

The Council of Christian Churches, composed of 10 members from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox Churches, and Armenian Apostolic Church, continued to serve as a forum for dialogue. One observer represented the Anglican Communion on the council.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s National Service for Relations with Islam, an organization for engagement with Muslims, hosted an annual training session on Islam in June to promote religious tolerance and understanding and maintain regular contacts with Muslim associations.

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