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Sarkozy: Some Muslim clerics 'not welcome on French soil'

Pool / REUTERS

Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, has banned Muslim clerics from entering the country. Many view his position as a political response to the fatal shootings by a Frenchman with ties to al-Qaida last week.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday he would bar a group of clerics from traveling to France for an Islamic conference next month, the French news organization Liberation.fr reported.

"I have clearly indicated that there are certain people who have been invited to this congress who are not welcome on French soil," Sarkozy told France Info radio.

Sarkozy’s announcement has been viewed as a political response to the murders in Toulouse, The New York Times reported, when Mohammed Merah, a young Frenchman with alleged ties to al-Qaida, fatally shot a young rabbi, three Jewish children at a school in southern France and three paratroopers. Since the killings, the president has also said he wants to punish people for repeatedly viewing extremist Islamic websites and for traveling abroad for terrorist training.


French shooting victims shot at close range

Among those who may not enter the country is Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi, a prominent Egyptian cleric who lives in exile in Qatar. Sarkozy had to appeal directly to the Qatari government to prevent the 86-year-old cleric from entering, since he has a diplomatic visa. Al-Qaradawi was also banned from visiting England in 2008.

Suhaib Salem / Reuters

Egyptian cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi spoke to 200,000 demonstrators in Egypt following the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

Al-Qaradawi is a household name in the Arab world, known for being a prominent Sunni scholar and television personality on Al Jazeera. He is also a man of contradictions, one who has criticized Arab governments for their lack of democracy and who has urged demonstrators in Egypt's Tahrir Square to “guard your revolution,” the Times reported.

He triggered outrage when he defended Palestinian suicide bombers and surprise when he railed against the 9/11 terrorism attacks, the Guardian reported in 2005.

"The difference is huge,” al-Qaradawi told the Guardian. “What happens in Palestine is self-defense. But in 9/11 they were not fighting an invasion; they didn't just use their own bodies but those of all the others in the planes. These young men attacked non combatants – even other Muslims and Arabs - going about their daily lives.”

The International Union of Muslim Scholars, which al-Qaradawi leads, is holding the April 6 conference. They said they would respect Sarkozy’s request.

But Sheik Ali al-Qaradaghi told the Agence France-Presse that al-Qaradawi is a “moderate scholar who contributed to combating extremism in Islamic thought” and who vehemently opposed the shootings in Toulouse.

France has worked with the cleric before; the Times reported that Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French foreign minister, traveled to Qatar for the cleric’s help in releasing French journalists kidnapped in Iraq. They were released, and Douste-Blazy thanked the cleric profusely. 

Sarkozy, who is running for re-election, is trailing slightly behind Socialist candidate François Hollande in the latest opinion polls.

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