A synagogue in Marseille, France, is being closed as the Jewish community that once supported it has left the neighborhood. Instead, the building will soon be reopened as a mosque, catering to the area's growing Muslim community.
The French daily La Provence reported this week that the al-Badr Association, a Muslim organization, had paid about $450,000 for the Or Thora synagogue, located near the Saint-Charles train station. Local Jewish leader Zvi Ammar later confirmed the news to Agence France-Presse, adding that the sale should be viewed "positively."
"We all have the same God. The main thing is for this to proceed in harmony," Ammar said.
The Or Thora synagogue had a long history in Marseille. It had been founded after Jews from Algeria immigrated to Marseille in 1962, following that country's successful war for independence. While the synagogue had thrived over the years, the number of members had now declined: The building had a capacity of about 250, but just a handful of worshipers was visiting it before it closed.
Meanwhile, a tiny nearby mosque run by al-Badr was overflowing during services. About 220,000 Muslims live in Marseille, a city of about 2 million, dwarfing a Jewish population of about 70,000.
The situation in Marseille would seem to reflect a nationwide trend. Across France, the Muslim population is growing. Although French law doesn't allow the census to ask people about their religious beliefs, estimates suggest that Muslims may make up 5 to 12 percent of France's total population. Meanwhile, although France had a growing Jewish population for decades after World War II, over the past few years, some French Jews began to express doubt about their future in the country, citing anti-Semitism and other concerns.
The Jewish Agency, which encourages immigration to Israel, told The Washington Post last year that the number of French Jews leaving for Israel had registered a dramatic annual jump: from 3,400 in 2013 to about 7,000 in 2014. Such an increase would make France one of the largest contributors to Jewish immigration to Israel.
Marseille had long been a center for France's Jewish community. Elie Berrebi, director of Marseille’s Central Jewish Consistory, told the Times of Israel this week that after a number of anti-Semitic attacks in the city center, many Jews were moving from central and north Marseille to middle-class neighborhoods in the south of the city, where about 80 percent of Marseille's Jews live. However, speaking to AFP, Ammar played down the significance of the total number of Jews in the city, pointing out that the number of synagogues had almost doubled to 58 from 32 over the past three decades.
While synagogues have closed in Marseille before, this marks the first time that one has been turned into a mosque (La Provence reports that another one did turn into a Coptic church). The city's Muslim population was promised an official $25 million Grand Mosque in 2001, but the project has been delayed by a variety of problems, including opposition from the right-wing National Front.