Marseille // A solitary stone, amid the dereliction and graffiti of an abandoned livestock market and abattoir, seems a flimsy foundation for the fulfilment of the greatest dream of Nourrédine Cheikh's life. But as France, in common with much of Europe, stands at hazardous crossroads in its relations with the world of Islam, what the stone represents is enough to make Mr Cheikh a contented man.
Before the end of next year, he hopes, it will be part of the grand mosque for which Muslims in the bustling Mediterranean port of Marseille have campaigned for decades but which he feared, at times, he would not live to see. The symbolic sign that work has at last begun also brings hope of a swift breakthrough in the task of raising the large sums of money still needed to produce a place of worship for up to 7,000 people.
Algeria is the only country so far to commit itself to making a donation towards the 22 million (Dh98.5m) project and has promised an announcement within the coming months. After extensive lobbying of diplomats in France from all other Muslim countries, Mr Cheikh, president of the Grand Mosque association, is convinced their moral support will be converted into financial aid once Algiers declares its hand.
For French Muslims, but also for non-Muslims convinced of a need for the provision of modern facilities for those practising the country's most popular faith after Catholicism, it cannot come a moment too soon. At a ceremony attended by 200 guests, the conservative UMP mayor of Marseille, Jean-Claude Gaudin, said earlier this month it was as logical that the city's Muslims, no less than its Christians and Jews, should have a significant monument to mark their faith.
Referring to persistent attempts by the far Right in Marseille to block the project, he said: "People have tried to stop us but we were able, using the laws and rules of the republic, to overcome difficulties. Marseille is a mosaic of communities and each must be at ease." The development, described by Mr Cheikh as "historic and extremely moving", comes at a difficult time for those promoting the interests of integration in a number of European countries.
Last month, Belgium's lower house voted in favour of prohibiting the full veil while in France, there is tension over the government's proposed ban on the head-to-toe burqa. A Muslim woman was given an on-the-spot fine for driving her car while fully veiled in the western city of Nantes, and anti-Muslim feeling has also been aroused by news that the first gang suspect to be arrested, after a shoot-out near Paris that left a young policewoman dead, is Moroccan.
In Italy, another Muslim woman has been fined for wearing a burqa in public; she was on her way to a mosque near her home. And in the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party of Geert Wilders enjoyed success in local elections, and is expected to win extra seats - and possibly even a chance to join a coalition government - at next Wednesday's general election. Mr Cheikh said negative media coverage and a tendency to blame immigrants for economic and social problems, makes integration harder to achieve. Community relations are also harmed, he argues, by the significant discrimination suffered by people of north African origin in jobs and housing.
"My experience is that genuinely religious people, Catholics, Protestants and Jews, are much more tolerant than those with no real faith," he said. He feels the image of Muslims generally is tarnished by the activities of extremists and said he is horrified when "acts of terrorism are claimed to have been carried out in the name of Islam when in fact they are contrary to the principles of the religion".
Yet he remains optimistic about the future, both in terms of the mosque project and in tackling causes of misunderstanding. "I certainly believe that non-Muslims will be among those offering donations to ensure this mosque is built," he said. Now 71, Mr Cheikh, an economist married with three grown-up children, arrived in France from Algeria 45 years ago. Marseille, for centuries a magnet for migrants, was already home to 100,000 Muslims, most from the Maghreb countries on the other side of the Mediterranean. It took a further 11 years for the city to have its first mosque, in a converted garage. Even now, among more than 60 places of worship, only four can truly be considered mosques, Mr Cheikh said, and far too many of the rest are in wholly inadequate premises.
In a city of up to 250,000 Muslims, more than a quarter of the total population and 45,000 of them practising their faith regularly, there will still be a shortfall of 15,000 places when the Grand Mosque is complete, with a prayer hall measuring 2,500 square metres. "But it is a very emotional time for me, knowing that by the grace of God, I will see the project come to fruition," he said. "There have been times when I doubted that I would see that day, and times when I have felt weary of the battle, the disputes. Other Muslim leaders looked me in the eye and told me I had been chosen for this mission and had to see it through."