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Muslims split over Marseille's mega-mosque

By Daniela Deane for CNN
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Marseille's mega-mosque
  • France's Muslim community is largest in Europe
  • Up until now, Muslims there have worshipped in makeshift mosques
  • City's Muslims split over construction of the mega-mosque
  • Saudi Arabian and Algerian donors have contributed some $60 million

(CNN) -- Marseille, France's second largest city and the country's gateway to north Africa and the Mediterranean, is home to almost a quarter of a million Muslims.

But for years, this ever-growing community has had to make do with a haphazard collection of makeshift mosques housed in shops, offices, basements, garages and rented rooms for their daily worship.

Until now, that is.

Several decades in the planning, the Grand Mosque of Marseille, at 92,500 square feet by far the largest mosque in the country, is due to break ground in April on the north side of the city's old port.

Donors from Saudi Arabia and Algeria have contributed more than $60 million. Marseille's mayor has issued building permits. At least two lawsuits filed by groups attempting to block its construction have been scuttled.

The mosque's vast prayer hall will hold up to 7,000 people, but in deference to local sensitivities, it will sport no blaring loudspeaker -- no muezzin, neither live nor recorded -- to summon the faithful to prayer throughout the day.

Instead, it will have a powerful purple light, which will blink five times a day at prayer times. Perhaps it should've been green, since green is the traditional color of Islam. But in a port town, green is also the color used to communicate with ships at sea. And red is the color of the city's firefighters.

This new purple beacon could become another symbol of the fabled, cosmopolitan French city by the sea.

For many, the building of the mosque is a tangible sign of both the growing numbers of Muslims in France -- and all of western Europe -- and the groups' increasing desire to live in France but by its own cultural and religious mores.

"It's not Muslims that need a big mosque. It's the government that needs a big mosque.
--Youcef Mammeri, writer
  • Islam
  • France
  • Marseille (France)
  • Religion

"In my opinion, this is much more of a political sign within the Muslim community to say 'finally we recognize the importance of Islam as a part of French culture, and not just as an imported religion," Abdessalem Souiki, a local imam, told CNN.

The European Union is believed to be home to up to 20 million Muslims. France has the highest number, with as many as six million congregating in fewer than 2,500 prayer houses and mosques throughout the country.

There has been a long-running national debate in France as to how far it is willing to accommodate its growing Muslim identity without undermining the separation of church and state. In a bid to defend secularism, the French government passed a law in 2004 banning head scarves or other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools.

A French parliamentary inquiry is now holding hearings on whether to bar Muslim women from wearing the full Islamic veil, or burqa.

Relations between Muslims and Europeans have generally been good. But attacks associated with Islamic terrorism in France in 1995, the United States in 2001, Spain in 2004 and Britain in 2005 have resonated both within the community and beyond.

Marseille's Muslims are split over the construction of the mosque. According to a recent newspaper poll, only 57 percent support the building of the mega-mosque, due to be completed by 2011.

Youcef Mammeri, a prominent member of the some 200,000-strong community and a writer on Islam in France, objects to its location, on a site known as the "abattoir," where an old slaughterhouse once stood in one of the port city's poorest neighborhoods.

He told CNN the mega-mosque "will not have anything to do with spirituality anymore." He predicts it will "capture all the attention, but at the same time gather a lot of opposition and conflict."

He says the local Muslim community would prefer more and smaller neighborhood mosques, rather than the city's first purpose-built place of worship.

Mammeri, a member of the Joint Council of Muslims of Marseille, doubts the mosque will ever get built, saying there have been plans for a grand mosque in the city since 1937, when a monument to honor France's Muslim war veterans was constructed on the Marseille shore.

"It's not Muslims that need a big mosque," Mammeri told CNN. "It's the government that needs a big mosque, so its reputation as a cosmopolitan, diverse and harmonious city lasts."

CNN's Atika Shubert contributed to this report.