France: Permit for Marseille mega-mosque cancelled

France in April became the first country in Europe to apply a ban on the wearing of full-face coverings.

Marseille: A French court on Thursday cancelled a construction permit for a mega-mosque in the southern city of Marseille that had been touted as a potential symbol of Islam`s growing place in France.

The city`s administrative tribunal ruled the project, which had already been under suspension for 18 months, would have to be cancelled because of failures to meet urban-planning requirements.

It raised particular concerns over the project`s failure to finalise a deal for a 450-place parking lot and to reassure planners that the mosque would fit with the urban environment.

The tribunal noted "a lack of graphical material permitting the evaluation of the project`s integration with neighbouring buildings, its visual impact and the treatment of access points and land."

Critics of the project were quick to praise the court for its ruling.

"It`s the culmination of a long struggle for the people who live and work here, and who simply wanted for this project to fit in harmony with the neighbourhood`s economic and social fabric," said Pierre Metras, a local butcher who led the neighbourhood campaign against the mosque.

The project was granted a permit in September 2009 but construction was suspended following complaints from local residents and businesses.

The EUR 22 million project would have seen the Grand Mosque, boasting a minaret soaring 25-metres high and room for up to 7,000 worshippers, built in the city`s northern Saint-Louis area.

Originally scheduled to open next year, it would have also hosted a Koranic school, library, restaurant and tea room.

Muslim leaders in the Mediterranean city had hailed the approval of the project as a key step in recognising the importance of Marseille`s large Muslim community.

France`s second city is home to an estimated 250,000 Muslims, many of whom flock to makeshift prayer houses in basements, rented rooms and dingy garages to worship.

The project`s architect, Maxime Repaux, said after the court ruling: "I find it pretty amazing that they`ve cancelled our construction permit because of a parking lot when what we are trying to do is to bring Islam out of the garage and to stop prayers in the streets."

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 accommodate Islam, now the country`s second religion.

France in April became the first country in Europe to apply a ban on the wearing of full-face coverings, including the Islamic niqab and the burqa.

The decision triggered a political storm, with rights activists accusing President Nicolas Sarkozy of targeting of one of France`s most vulnerable groups to win back votes from the resurgent far right.

A French court in September slapped the first fines on two women for violating the ban.