In a classroom of the Catholic University of Paris, overlooking the dome of a 17th century church, three Muslim women from Algeria are poring over the origins of the word "secularism".

It is through weekly meetings in this unlikely setting and others that France - a strictly secular state with a Christian majority - hopes to train the nearly 2,000 imams and would-be Muslim chaplains, like these women, spreading the word to some 5 million Muslims, its largest minority.

Encouraging them towards a more moderate "French" Islam is an old idea that has again surfaced in the wake of the Paris attacks by Islamist militants that killed 17 people in January.

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