"We have come to the end of a long and often painful road. We will do everything to have a up a powerful symbol rise up, a monument for the city of Marseilles, that at the same time respects that the republic doesn't want to associate with religion."
With these words Nordine Cheikh received the keys of the Great Mosque last evening in the Marseilles town hall.
The first stone must still be laid for what will eventually be one of the largest mosques in French. The mosque, which will cost about 8 million euro, will have place for about 3,000 believers. Cheikh, president of the association of the Great Mosque, expects that it will be ready in 2010.
Cheikh received the keys from Jean-Pierre Gaudin, mayor of Marseilles for the past twelve years. He had personally worked hard for the mosque. France is the land of laïcité – the republic stays away from religions. That makes the involvement of the city council even more exceptional.
Gaudin has a clear explanation: "The growing Muslim community doesn't have enough prayer space. All the cities where many Muslims live - Lille, Toulouse, Montpellier – have a great mosque. Marseilles cannot stay behind. We're obligated for our residents."
The port city of Marseille prides itself on being a place where various communities live well together. Or as the mayor says: "Marseille wants to be a city of hospitality." When in 2005 cars were set afire, Marseille stayed calm.
A quarter of the 800,000 residents are Muslims, and according to Cheikh 40,000 are practicing. They come especially from Algeria, Tunis and Morooco, but Marseille also has 70,000 residents from the Comoros. There are about 60 mosques in the city, generally in empty buildings, old shops or warehouses.
The new mosque is being built on the site of the city's slaughterhouse in the Saint-Louis neighborhood. The area currently has the scenery warehouse of the opera, which will be partially integrated into the mosque. Gaudin wanted to make the land available for 99 years, but the city council didn't like it. The Great Mosque now pays 24,000 euro a year for the area of 8,600 sqm, and has an option for 50 years.
Cheikh now needs to bring in funds from believersin Marseille and elsewhere in France. The lands of origin will also being considered. Algeria, Tunis and Morocco may each contribute up to 1.7 million euro, as agreed with the city council. This in order to limit the chance of state interference. According to Cheikh the first promises have already been made. The presence of the mayor of Marrakesh in the key handing ceremony gave the mosque council good hopes.
The drawings of architect Abdelouahab Khelif shows a building with a dome, a monumental facade and two minarets [25 meters high]. They will not sound the call to prayer, as that's forbidden in France.
The city council also approved this summer the plan to reserve the area next ot the mosque for a cultural center with Arabic leanings. The center must be strictly separated from the mosque in order to prevent a mixing of culture and religion.
The extreme right has protested, according to Cheikh there are also Muslims who object to the common character of the enterprise. Despite that there is barely any opposition in Marseilles to the building.
"The first donation for the mosque came from a Catholic lady, the second from the Jewish center," says Marie-Noëlle Mivielle of the mayor's cabinet. "In Marseilles the religion associate well together. If there's opposition it comes from outside the city.
Sources: Volkskrant (Dutch), Earth Times (English)