From our special correspondents
It was a surprising prayer that took place a few days ago in a Catholic school in the northern districts of Marseille: a sign of the cross, a text from Abbot Pierre in the winter of 1954, followed by a …surah of the Koran, of a Gospel and finally of a time of common prayer. It was back to school in Saint-Joseph, in the Estaque district. At the beginning of September, employees of the Marseille establishment are invited to share this interreligious spiritual time in the school oratory.
At “Saint-Jo”, where children from the neighborhood are welcomed without distinction, diversity is not a subject of thesis: a third of the students are Catholic, a third Muslim and a final third claim no religion. The staff is also multi-faith. So we had to adapt. In the school, “all religions have the right of citizenship”, affirms the head of the establishment, Estelle Brivadis, who adds, really keen to make it clear: “It is our Christian faith which irrigates this project: to grow children spiritually, whatever their religion. »
A well-established mix of pragmatism and fraternity. So this is the secret of the famous “Marseille model” which would allow this multicultural cauldron to boil, without too many clashes? From the outset, our interlocutors warn us against any optimism: “In Marseille, we are quick to draw out ready-made slogans, bragging about being a laboratory of fraternity and painting reality in pink,” warns a Catholic, settled by choice in the difficult neighborhoods of the city. “Are you really ready to question reality or are you going to write a politically correct article anyway? », even says Raffi Delanian, general practitioner and imposing figure in the Armenian community.
Listening to its inhabitants, it remains a “Marseille exception”, inherited from the history of the city. Over the centuries, poor people, migrants and persecuted people from around the Mediterranean have been stranded there: Corsicans, Italians, Jews, Armenians, North Africans, Eastern Christians and today Ukrainians… With the help of urban anarchism, Marseille continues to mix, heart of the city, different populations. In this metropolis of 861,000 inhabitants, the cities and working-class neighborhoods are intramural. Many neighborhoods remain turbulent. The older generation likes to talk about this popular fraternity that is now being mistreated. “In Marseille, we all live together! », assures Salim, around 60 years old, almost forty of which spent in France. He throws this in front of his mosque, at prayer time, almost like one shouts one’s faith. “Most of my friends are Jews: Jean-Pierre, the others, they have the stores next door. We laugh together, we drink coffee, we talk about women, about everything. I’ve lived in Marseille for thirty-six years, and here, the sun rises for everyone! »
On his advice, we go to see Jean-Pierre, a merchant on rue du Tapis-Vert. It is here that Jewish wholesalers set up ready-to-wear stores upon arriving from Algeria. Today, most of them have sold to Chinese people. But up the street, it’s still Jean-Pierre who runs the shop. At the mention of his Muslim friends, the 58-year-old trader, child of Algerian Jews, drops his wardrobe and sits down on a large box.
“I have been working in the neighborhood for forty years, and I have as many Arab, Jewish and French friends. Over there, on the corner of the street, it’s Ahmed, who runs the bar. » He looks at us fixedly. “We have forty years of friendship. He is Muslim, he is my best friend. It’s a friendship that you can’t describe…” A sepia postcard? Like many children of immigrants, Jean-Pierre grew up in the northern districts, but left them to flee poverty and degraded housing. The situation since his departure has worsened: ghettoization, the gangrene of drug trafficking with its procession of deadly score-settling – 33 in 2023 – and poverty which sometimes borders on misery. Those who have the means – French Jews or of Armenian origin in the lead – go, preferably to the south of the city. And the vicious circle of withdrawal into identity begins. “In Marseille, the social divide risks becoming identity-based and confessional,” explains, worried, imam Nassurdine Haidari, 45, president of the Representative Council of Black Associations of France (Cran).
The best proof of the dynamic he describes remains his own journey. Of Comorian origin, born in the Panier district, he describes his childhood as emblematic of Marseille’s “living together”. His father, homeless at the time, was hired by his Corsican and Italian neighbors. Then it was a Christian woman, “Madame Durand”, who took him under her wing: “I did the shopping for her, and she taught me all the specialties of Marseille. Today, he paints a completely different picture and questions: “I know people in the neighborhoods who have never spoken to a Jew. There is racialization in Marseille. When you find yourself between Blacks and Arabs morning, noon and evening, when is otherness? Nor does he evade the rise of rigorous Islam, which seduces young people: “It thrives where there are the most economic difficulties. Salafism becomes the last public service left. It is a ready-to-use Islam, which provides rules and structure. »
The last barrier against this archipelago of communities: the Marseille identity, a sort of municipal nationalism which continues to transcend affiliations. OM, the “Good Mother” (nickname of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde cathedral, which dominates the city), the sun and the pride of belonging to a mixed and rebellious city, which holds its own in Paris. “The little ones we meet in the neighborhood are not comfortable with their French identity but proudly claim to be from Marseille,” says a nun, living with her community in a public housing tower in the northern districts.
Yet, last June, even this common identity seemed to have cracked. Young people from the city participated in the urban violence which affected many municipalities in the country. “In 2005, there was nothing in Marseille, we had the feeling of belonging to a big family. There, it was the first time that I saw young people turn against the city. The Marseille identity has faltered. They destroyed their own garden,” breathes imam Nassurdine Haidari. Against this worrying drift of the continents, Catholics intend to play a driving role: “On interreligious dialogue, it is really the local Church that leads the dance, observes Vincent Geisser, political scientist of the CNRS, at the Institute for Research and studies on the Arab and Muslim worlds. The diocese has a real policy, in connection with the national service for relations with Muslims. It allows the actors to meet each other. The Jewish-Muslim dialogue is at a standstill. “The problem with interreligious is that those who take part in it are those who already agree. We rely completely on secularism which protects us, ”sums up the president of the Israelite consistory of Marseille, Michel Cohen-Tenoudji.
Lucid about its minority dimension and the role – even minimal – that it can play, the diocese first equipped itself intellectually. In 1992, Cardinal Coffy, archbishop at the time, entrusted young Father Jean-Marc Aveline with the task of creating the Institute of Science and Theology of Religions (ISTR), then its umbrella structure, the Catholic Institute of the Mediterranean, born ten years later. The ISTR, with its center of Islamic-Christian studies and research, has trained hundreds of Catholics – teachers, hospital chaplains, priests, etc. – in encounters with Muslims.
In the diocese, there is no question of any plan to evangelize the faithful of Islam. The theological works on the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld and the martyred monks of Tibhirine permeate “the culture of encounter” promoted by the local Church. Despite this apparent absence of proselytism, Muslim conversions represent 10% of baptisms each year. “I’m not looking to convert at all. Firstly because I believe that we must above all bear witness to Christ through our lives. Then because Muslims also reveal something of God to us,” argues, for example, a cleric, a long-time member of the city’s “imams-priests” group.
This is also the path chosen by the Disciples of the Gospel, a community of three Italian sisters who are linked to the spiritual family of Charles de Foucauld. For eight years, they have shared a T4 on the 17th floor of Tower E of Cité Solidarité, in the northern districts. They divide their time between their work, prayer and the neighborhood where they share the daily life of the residents, almost exclusively Muslims.
In their apartment, they reduced their living room to dedicate a room to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. For these nuns, their mission consists of living the life of the 3,500 souls of the city, praying for them, helping them as best they can, welcoming them into their homes and trying to become friends. “We are only a tiny sign of God’s presence, but it is really important to be here,” insists one of them. Their celibacy, their loyalty to the neighborhood raise questions. And sometimes affect their neighbors, like when, in 2022, after several settling of scores, they were expected to leave. They stayed.
There are more than a dozen Catholic religious communities, discreetly established in the poor neighborhoods of the city. There are not always new generations to take over, but young couples arrive to experience the same adventure, supervised for their first steps by associations like Le Rocher or Maison Bernadette. For example, there is Camille, who came five years ago to escape “the bourgeois Catholic community” and “talk about Jesus to those who don’t know him”.
“In Marseille, there is an uninhibited way of assuming one’s faith that you don’t find anywhere else,” maintains this mother, who speaks cash: “There is sometimes a confrontation of models, a certain number of Catholics question and worry about the place that Islam takes, we must not deny it. But there are also real friendships. »
When we ask Geoffroy, her husband, what their presence in the northern districts changes, he thinks and answers: “Before arriving in Marseille, with Camille, we had an all-encompassing vision: we said THE Muslims, THE cities. Today, without being naive, we are able to move to the personal level. We can chat with a chouf (a little hand in drug trafficking, Editor’s note), and see that he too is worthy of being loved. »