Marseille's Muslims eye long-awaited mosque

For 150 years the basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde has dominated the skyline of Marseille.

The church is situated at the highest natural point in the city, overlooking the old port.

It is a reassuring sight for fishermen who head to sea past the fortress of Chateau d'If.

But very soon the north side of Marseille will be dominated be a new and very different religious symbol - the new Grand Mosque.

Image caption Yves Moraine of the UMP says the project is long overdue

It has been dubbed a "Cathedral Mosque".

Architects say they took inspiration from the Taj Mahal for their designs. The video, visualising the construction, shows a building with an enormous golden dome.

The minaret will rise 80ft (24m) and with a prayer room big enough to hold 7,000 people this will be the biggest mosque in France.

"It is a project long overdue," said Yves Moraine, the leader of the ruling UMP party in Marseille.

"Our view is it is better to have a form of Islam out in the open, with decent places for people to worship, rather than an Islam that is forced underground, that pray in cellars," he said.

It is a sentiment echoed by the president himself.

In 2004 while finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy argued that France should update the legislation that sets down strict separation between religion and state, to recognise "modern challenges".

The provision of a mosque in every sizeable town, he said, would help counter the extremism that grows in the makeshift mosques where, in some cases, untrained imams are holding prayer meetings with young people.

The new mosque in Marseille is being built a long way from the picturesque surroundings of the old port.

In fact it is on the furthest outskirts of the city, on the site of an old abattoir - and a pig abattoir at that. The site is derelict, a favourite haunt for drug users, and needles litter the floor of the old warehouse.

Some say the location speaks volumes.

But Makhete Cisse from the Association of Mosques - the organisation spearheading the project - disagrees.

"It is the perfect position," he says.

"We are surrounded by a sizeable Muslim community here. This mosque will cover an area over 90,000 sq ft (8,361 sq m).

"It is a complex with a library and a restaurant. We need a big site… and besides, the city - the heart of the business district - is moving this way, towards us."

Foreign funding

The project will need more funding, an issue that might cause further controversy.

They estimate it will cost more than 20m euros (£16.5m; $25m) to build, and the bulk of the money is coming from outside the country - from Algeria, Saudi Arabia and other Middle East and North African countries.

Some Muslims we spoke to knew very little about what the project entails, some fear it might create anger and more division within the city.

Image caption Stephane Ravier of the Front National opposes the development

Earlier this year gunmen sprayed bullets across the facade of the Arrahma mosque in Istres, a town a few dozen kilometres from Marseille.

Local politicians of the far-right National Front (FN) have vainly filed lawsuits trying to block the construction.

For them this echoes the same debate that surrounds the wearing of the Muslim niqab. The mosque and the veil are statements of "separation and difference" in a Christian - yet fiercely secular - state.

"We didn't invite Islam here," said Stephane Ravier of the FN. "It came in the suitcases of the workers who were brought to France by the factory managers.

"Muslims should observe the culture of France and observe their religion with discretion. This is a country with Christian traditions, it has been that way for centuries, they should respect that."

Local sensitivities

But then Muslims - sensitive to local opposition - have been meeting with discretion for years.

They pray in shops, converted garages or basements. Of 60 places of worship in Marseille only four can be considered true mosques.

And perhaps those overseeing the project would point to the design as evidence they do pay attention to local sensitivities.

There will be no muezzin, live or recorded, that will disturb the neighbourhood with the call to prayer.

Image caption Marseille's mosques are currently tucked away in its side streets

Instead, they will flash a beam of light from the dome of the mosque every couple of minutes, five times a day. Ordinarily the light would be green the colour of Islam. But this is a port, and green might have confused the ships out at sea.

Red might have clashed with the emergency services. So instead, the Marseille Mosque Association has agreed to a purple light.

Abdel Hakim Rahal, whom I met in one of the city's basement mosques, thinks the design, and the support of local government for the project, is evidence that Muslims are being assimilated into Marseille society.

"Muslims are 10% of the population," he said. "We need somewhere to meet and pray.

"It has been a long time in coming. But as they say in French: Mieux vaut tard que jamais! (better late than never)."

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