By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Marseille
For the first time, a synagogue in Marseille is in the process of being sold to a Muslim organisation, which has plans to turn it into a mosque. The diverse port city is renowned for decades of tolerance and co-habitation – but some things are changing.
Marseille has always been a place of second chances. Round the back of the old port, where many North African immigrants got their first view of France is a tiny youth centre, where the city’s most troubled boys are encouraged to take up pool instead of petty crime.
Sitting in a deckchair on the street outside, their youth worker, Samir, tells me most of the boys in the programme are Muslim. But in the melting pot that is Marseille, he suggests, no-one notices things like that.
“Marseille is a town of immigration – it has the largest port in France,” he tells me. “For centuries, it’s welcomed different people from different countries, and we all live together very well. Here in the south, we have the sun, the beach; we’re not stressed, there’s no racism down here.”
But there is change. And a few feet away, at the end of the street is one powerful sign of it – a nondescript yellow building that used to be the Or Thora synagogue. Its walls are now covered in graffiti, its doors shuttered.
The synagogue used to be the heart of a thriving Jewish community, but as those families became more successful, they moved to wealthier parts of Marseille, and in their place have come Muslim families.
Which is why the city’s Chief Rabbi, Ruben Ohana, has given his permission for the old synagogue to be sold to a conservative Muslim organisation called al-Badr, which plans to turn it into a mosque.
Of course, the decision to close the synagogue needed careful thought, the Rabbi tells me. “But if it has to close, it’s better to sell it than just leave it empty. And if it’s going to be sold, better that it becomes a place of prayer than a shop or a nightclub.”
His worshippers, too, were largely sanguine about the change.
“It’s disappointing to see the Jewish community move out of the centre of Marseille and to see another religion taking over that building,” one woman says. “But so be it.”
“It was unavoidable,” says another man. “The Jewish population had left the neighbourhood.”