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French Muslims lay first stone of Marseille mega-mosque

Muslims in the south of France marked the end of a 60-year campaign for a mega-mosque for Marseille, a city with a high Muslim population, as the first cornerstone for the building was laid on Thursday.


AFP -  French Muslims celebrated a milestone on Thursday when work began to build a Grand Mosque in Marseille, the country's biggest and a potent symbol of Islam's place in modern France.

A day after the French government approved a bill banning the full Islamic veil, Muslim leaders and local politicians hailed as "historic" the laying of the mosque's cornerstone at a dusty construction site in northern Marseille.

France's second city is home to 250,000 Muslims, many of whom flock to makeshift prayer houses in basements, rented rooms and dingy garages to worship.

With a minaret soaring 25 metres (82 feet) high, the Grand Mosque will hold up to 7,000 people in its prayer room and the complex will also boast a Koranic school, library, restaurant and tea room when it opens in 2012.

Muslims in Marseille have long campaigned for a mega-mosque as a prominent gathering place that would bring Islam out of the basements and allow it to thrive under the Mediterranean sun.

The turning point came in 2001 when Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin, a member of President Nicolas Sarky's right-wing party, threw his weight behind the project, overriding objections from the far-right.

Like Sarkozy, Gaudin sees the new mosque as a way to help France's large Muslim minority integrate into the mainstream and foster a form of moderate, modern Islam that shuns burqas.

"The construction of this Grand Mosque will serve as a showcase for Marseille's Muslims to promote the true face of Islam, an enlightened Islam," said Mohamed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of the Muslim faith.

After years of delays, the project still faces hurdles to raise the full 22 million euros (27 million dollars) needed to finance it.

Nourredine Cheikh, an Algerian-born businessman and president of the association leading the campaign for the mosque, said his group is hoping for big donations from north African countries, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.

Among the dozen diplomats from Muslim countries who attended the ceremony, Algerian Ambassador Missoum Sbih said Muslims in Marseille "could not do without a dignified place of worship" in France, which he described as "Europe's number one Muslim country."

Algeria will sit down with other donor countries to work out financing, he said.

The grand mosque will be built in the Saint-Louis area of Marseille, an ethnically mixed neighborhood that suffers from high unemployment and poverty.

Home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority, estimated at between five and six million, France has for years been debating how far it is willing to go to accommodate Islam, now the country's second religion.

Soon after Switzerland voted to ban minaret construction last year, Sarkozy warned French Muslims to "avoid ostentation" in the practice of their religion and he has declared the face-covering veil "not welcome" in France.

With parliament now set to debate a bill that would bar women from wearing the full Islamic veil, Muslim leaders worry about a surge of Islamophobia in France.

Last month, gunmen sprayed bullets across the facade of the Arrahma mosque in Istres, a town a few dozen kilometres from Marseille, raising alarm among Muslims.

Nadia Houte, a 31-year-old teacher, said the mosque would bring Muslims together and promote a positive image of Islam.

"We are Muslims, not fundamentalists," she said. "The burqa doesn't interest me. This has nothing to do with me."

There will be no blaring call to prayer from the Grand Mosque's minaret, but simply a blue light that will flash five times a day to summon the Marseille faithful.

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