In a neighborhood in the suburbs of Paris, Europe's first gay-friendly mosque is opening its doors.
The mosque's founder, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, comes to inspect the location for this unusual place of worship for the first time -- a small room inside a Buddhist dojo, a meditation room.
For Zahed, a gay man and a practicing Muslim, the location has the advantage of being both anonymous and nonpolitical, he says.
From November 30, every Friday, this room will welcome gay, transgender, and transsexual individuals for an ultra-progressive Muslim prayer in which women will be encouraged to sit next to men, and to lead the prayer.
The room, though small, will officially become France's first gay-friendly and feminist mosque.
The project was made possible thanks to a Buddhist monk, Federico Joko Procopio, a homosexual who fights for gay rights.
Up until now, Zahed would pray in the Great Mosque of Paris, blending in with thousands of his fellow-worshipers each Friday. But he says he hopes the new mosque will be more welcoming for those who feel on the margins of the Muslim faith.
"It is a secure place which welcomes all Muslims and others, people who want to share an authentic moment of spirituality, of exchange, of sharing, of profound and soothing intellectual reflection on very diverse questions which concern the daily lives of all Muslims in France," Zahed says. "Things that we can't always easily talk about in other circumstances, in other mosques."
The 35-year-old Franco-Algerian expects about 20 attendees for the first prayer. But he hopes the space will attract more and more people, as did his association Homosexual Muslims of France, which started with six people and is now 325-members strong.
But Zahed's experience is still rare, and he says that in the crowds at conventional Friday prayers, some individuals stand out.
"There are homosexuals, trans-identity people who are very effeminate and in a phase of transition. This is not against nature, I mean, it's not their fault, it is part of nature, it is the God who created them that way," Zahed says. "Some of them want to pray but they don't dare go because they are very effeminate and they are spotted immediately so they tell themselves -- rightly or not -- 'This kind of mosque could allow me to ask myself more questions on who I am, where I come from, is pursuing spirituality something I want or not?' So I think that from now on it will bring together people with very different and varied circumstances."
With this new mosque open to all, he says he intends to offer a safe haven to those who don't feel comfortable in more traditional places of worship.
Three members of his association are currently doing weekly training to act as the mosque's imams.
The initiative has not been backed by any Muslim institution, and many of France's Muslim clerics said they considered the project as contrary to the principles of Islam.
"This is something which is outside of the [Muslim] community," says Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, "which means that he [Zahed] will not be a member of the community and his mosque will not be one that others will visit or will come to pray at because it is built on foundations of a condemnation by religion of the very principles which brought the place together."
Zahed, though relaxed about hostile reactions within the Muslim community, asked reporters covering the opening to avoid disclosing the location of his "all-inclusive mosque" to protect its visitors.
The mosque opens just as France is being entangled in a heated debate on gay marriage and adoption.
Zahed says the mosque's opening was not planned to coincide with this national debate.
Inclusive mosques such as Zahed's already exist in South Africa, the United States, and Canada, but Zahed's is a first in Europe. The grassroots organization Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), founded in 2007 in the United States, counted about six such places in North America.
Although small in numbers -- MPV has about 1,500 members in the United States -- these "progressive Muslims" say they intend to embody an "alternative Islam".
Zahed adds that his goal is not to convince everyone to "become a homophile" but says he feels opinion is slowly starting to change on such questions.
He says he's surprised at the number of e-mails of support and questions he has received since news of his project broke, in addition to the threats he expected.