MARSEILLE, France — French Muslims celebrate a milestone on Thursday when building work begins on a mega-mosque in Marseille, the nation'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 will join politicians for a ceremony to lay the 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.
For more than 60 years, Muslim leaders have campaigned for a mega-mosque as a prominent gathering place that would bring Islam out of the basements and allow it to thrive under Marseille's Mediterranean sun.
The turning point came in 2001 when Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin, a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing party, decided to back the 22-million-euro (27 million dollars) project, overriding objections from the far-right.
Like Sarkozy, Gaudin has argued that supporting new mosques will help France's large Muslim minority integrate into the mainstream and foster a form of moderate, modern Islam that shuns burqas.
"This is the real face of Islam in France," said Nourredine Cheikh, president of the association that has lead the campaign for the Grand Mosque, as he pointed at the architect plans for the massive new complex.
"This is recognition. This is what tells me that I have the same status as Catholics and other religious people in this country."
The grand mosque will be built in the Saint-Louis area of Marseille, an ethnically mixed neighbourhood where Nasir's pizzeria and Bernard's driving school share the same street.
The building permit was formally handed over to Muslim leaders in November, despite court challenges from the far-right who have dubbed the new building a "cathedral mosque" meant to rival Marseille's Catholic churches.
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 accomodate 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.
Salima Bassousilia, a 46-year-old pastry chef, said it was high time that the new mosque became a reality and suggested it would help "appease" those who fear Islam, simply by providing a more positive image.
"This is a good project. It will be an honour for us to come here," she said, standing outside the construction site.
Nasrin Belkadir said he has often been left to worship in the street outside his small prayer house which quickly fills up on holy days.
"The dogs have relieved themselves there and this is where we lay our mats to pray," he said shaking his head in disapproval. Belkadir is looking forward to an end to the current setup of makeshift mosques.
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.
After years of delays, the project still faces hurdles to raise the full 22 million euros needed to finance it.
Cheikh, an Algerian-born businessman, said his group is hoping for big donations from north African countries, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia to cover most of the cost.