In Secular French Schools, One Group Wants To Talk Religion : Parallels French public schools discourage any display of religious identity. But after an Islamist terror attack this year, a religious co-existence group has found a huge demand for its services.

In Secular French Schools, One Group Wants To Talk Religion

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to explore a shift that began in French schools after last January's terrorist attacks on a satirical magazine and kosher supermarket. When there was a national minute of silence in France to remember the victims, some Muslim students refused to take part. That led to a renewed emphasis on values like freedom of speech and secularism in French classrooms. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports some feel that emphasis is stifling any discussion of religion in schools.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Radia Bakkouch and Lazare Jefroykin meet up at the Gare de Lyon train station to travel to a middle school in the Paris suburbs. The young Muslim and Jew are part of an interfaith group called Coexister. Bakkouch says the group was set up six years ago to encourage religious dialogue and break down stereotypes.

RADIA BAKKOUCH: Just the fact that we are two young people talking and we are from different religions and especially Jewish and Muslims, like, it's really the - wow, it has impacts when we go in schools and stuff.

BEARDSLEY: Twenty-three-year-old Bakkouch is a French Muslim who's also spent time in Israel. She says she's not against French laicite, or secularism. In fact, she's proud of it.

BAKKOUCH: It is supposed to the framework that allows every religions to promote their beliefs and every person can practice their religions at home and they're protected.

BEARDSLEY: But Bakkouch says she’s worried the discussion of religion is becoming a taboo subject in the public sphere in France. Her Jewish colleague, 18-year-old Lazare Jefroykin, agrees.

LAZARE JEFROYKIN: Talking too much about religion and above all defending our identity in terms of religion is not too much welcome in secular school because you mustn't express any kind of religion identity because you are French and above all French.

BEARDSLEY: As they arrive at the school, Jefroykin says it's his first time out with Coexister and he's nervous. But he grew up with Muslim friends in a multicultural Paris neighborhood and he doesn't want January's terrorist attacks on journalists and Jews to destroy that.

JEFROYKIN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: On an overhead projector, the pair bring up symbols for the major religions of France and ask the middle schoolers to write down two words that come to mind for each faith.

BAKKOUCH: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: As the responses come in, Bakkouch begins to address one stereotype after another. She calls one particularly dangerous, that Jews are rich.

BAKKOUCH: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Perhaps you don't think it's a big deal," she tells the students, "but Jews have been murdered in France because of this stereotype."

BAKKOUCH: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The sixth-graders clearly warm to the game, peppering their young instructors with questions. Religious figures like priests or rabbis are not allowed into French public schools and displaying one's religious identity is discouraged, but Bakkouch and Jefroykin tell the young people to take advantage of the diversity of their classmates to learn about each other's faiths.

(APPLAUSE)

BEARDSLEY: Afterwards, the 13-year-olds are enthusiastic about their experience.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "All religions are important and have to be respected," says one girl. "You can't really call any of them worthless." There's a lot of prejudice, especially against Islam, says one boy, 'cause everybody thinks Muslims are terrorists. Coexister is in high demand these days as schools seek to build tolerance and understanding by actually talking about religious beliefs in the classroom. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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