Confusion among French Muslims over start of Ramadan

PARIS (AFP) - French Muslims were thrown into confusion on Tuesday as the country's top Islamic body and officials at the leading mosque in Paris differed over the start date of the holy month of Ramadan.

While the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), the official Islamic representative body, was insisting that Ramadan had started on Tuesday, the theological council at the Great Mosque of Paris said it would not start until Wednesday, when many Arab countries are due to begin the observance.

The holy month, during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, begins with the sighting of the new moon, which varies from country to country.

The CFCM had in May settled on Tuesday as the start of Ramadan based on the expected arrival of the new moon, but theologians gathered on Monday night at the Paris mosque put off the start by a day, saying the new moon had not been sighted.

"Mosques were calling us yesterday until 1am, the imams were in disarray," said Djelloul Seddiki, the head of the mosque's theological council.

Dalil Boubakeur, who is both the president of the CFCM and the rector of the Paris mosque, said the change in date had followed an outcry in the community that Ramadan was not starting in France on the same day as in many Muslim countries.

"The calculation was not in theory wrong, but we did not take into account the community dimension - the community had decided it would follow the Muslim countries," Boubakeur said.

He said the confusion had been "a lesson" for French Islamic leaders and that it would be legitimate to start observing Ramadan on either day.

During Ramadan, Muslims are also required to abstain from drinking liquids, smoking and having sex from dawn until dusk. The fasting is one of the five main religious obligations under Islam.

France is home to western Europe's largest Muslim minority, officially estimated at more than four million.