Sarkozy signs 'don't touch our churches' petition

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has added his name to a petition in a far-Right magazine opposing proposals to convert disused Christian churches into mosques for France's burgeoning Muslim population.

Sarkozy, who held France's top governmental role for five years until 2012, and is likely to seek re-election in 2017, signed a petition entitled "don't touch our churches" in the magazine Valeurs Actuelles.

Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of Paris' Grand Mosque and the president of the Muslim Council of France, recently suggested that empty churches could be converted into mosques and used by Muslims for worship.

Currently, there are 2,500 mosques in France with a further 300 under construction. Boubakeur has previously said the number of mosques in France needs to be doubled to cope with the country's Muslim population, which is the largest in Europe.

France has an estimated five million Muslims, equivalent to around one-third of the total Muslim population in Europe, according to the Brookings Institution, though Boubakeur has indicated he believes this figure to be as high as seven million.

The petition has gathered more than 22,000 signatures so far. It has also been signed by other prominent figures in France, including the wife of Stéphane Charbonnier, the late Charlie Hebdo editor killed by Islamist extremists in January.

Touche pas à mon église ! Votre dernier #Va est dans tous les kiosques. Courez-vite l'acheter!

— Valeurs actuelles ن (@Valeurs) July 9, 2015

Another former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, has also spoken out against the idea, saying that French Catholic churches have been "part of the historical heritage of the French population for 10 centuries".

Sarkozy has been outspoken in his engagement with Islam in recent months. In early June his newly renamed Republican party was criticised by French Muslim leaders for holding an internal meeting on the "question of Islam" in France.

The Republican leader also called for the French ban on Muslim head scarves, which already applies in state schools, to be extended to universities, and has been outspoken about his support for councils that want to end pork-free menus in schools.

Sarkozy's centre-Right Republicans are facing a strong challenge from Marine Le Pen's far-Right Front National, who have surged in popularity with an anti-immigration message.

A 2006 study by Catholic daily La Croix, which is based in Paris, found that the Catholic Church had 45,000 buildings in the country, but had only built 20 new churches in the previous decade.

Roman Catholicism remains the dominant religion in the country, according to the CIA World Factbook. Almost two-thirds of the population identify as Christian, the overwhelming majority of which are Catholic, though the country is avowedly secular and has not collected religious affiliation data since 1872.