One is dressed in a long black dress, the other wears a white veil. Sandra is Catholic, Nadia, Muslim. Both will have the privilege of speaking with the Pope on Saturday, September 23 in the morning. Then, they will go to the Vélodrome stadium, where some 60,000 people – including Emmanuel Macron – are expected for mass. “But besides, the Pope speaks French?” Nadia asks. Next to him, Sandra is worried: what if her excitement made her stammer, what would she look like? The two friends reassure each other: “We will go simply, with our hearts,” breathes Sandra. And Nadia added: “I would like to know why he chose to meet us, residents of the northern district. And understand what we can do for him, from where we are.”
At their side, Gonzague de Fombelle, director of Massabielle, a Christian association established since 2000 in the disadvantaged neighborhoods of Marseille, explains to them in a calm voice: “The Pope is sensitive to the peripheries. In our diocese, Massabielle carries this special vocation of hospitality. This is the reason why François wants to meet you.” The two women smile, honored to bring this voice to the Holy Father. The latter insisted: from September 22 to 23, he is visiting “Marseille”, and not the whole of France. The pontifical trip thus mobilizes the inhabitants well beyond just Catholics. Marseille, a brewing city, has 250,000 Muslims, or a quarter of its population. Coming from around the Mediterranean, Arab-Muslim immigration accompanied the economic boom of the Trente Glorieuses. The Islamic-Christian dialogue logically holds a special place there. The city’s archbishop, Cardinal Aveline, himself a pied-noir, is particularly involved there.
In “the northern neighborhoods”, often associated with terms of precariousness and violence, concrete ways of living together are emerging. “We are in a process of meeting and not proselytizing,” explains Gonzague, who arrived more than twenty years ago in the Cité des Lauriers, in the 13th arrondissement. The Massabielle association has established Maison Bernadette, or “Maison B”, a place of reception, academic support and spiritual exchanges between residents. On the wall that runs along the grounds of the house, a message addresses passers-by: “Trust. God loves you.” A bullet hole nestled on the dot of the “i” of the verb to love during a settling of scores several months ago.
Since January, 93 incidents of homicide or attempted homicide linked to drug banditry have been recorded. “Despite these tragic events, we must persevere,” continues the official. Tensions and withdrawals on both sides of the communities are observed, “like French society”, underlines Colette Hamza, a Xavierian nun, active member of interreligious dialogue in the Marseille city. She adds: “Ignorance of religions leads to distrust, amalgamation, rejection and even hatred.”
The central square of the school
Hence the importance of opening spaces for exchange from a very young age. Marc Padovani is a deacon and teacher of SVT (Earth Sciences and Life) in a public college in Le Canet, in the northwest of the city, where a large majority of students are Muslim. “I try to bring a presence of the Church where we don’t expect it,” he confides, recounting the anecdotes. When one of his students asked him if he was a priest, a friend replied: “He’s a Catholic imam.” Or this other who, meeting him at dawn near his parish, asks him if he is going on a pilgrimage to… Mecca, because of his white clothing. Marc Padovani is convinced of this: “School is unifying, we learn to understand who the other is. Dialogue can be scary, because it destabilizes our certainties, but it is fertile!”
Near him, Keltoum Santelli teaches French in a Catholic establishment. Born in Algeria and Muslim, she is a reference professor on religious questions. “In the fears entrusted to me, I find those that I encountered when I was younger: little Muslims sometimes have the impression of betraying their God by agreeing to speak with Christians. But it is quite the opposite! by questioning the other, I deepen my own relationship with my faith.” “Interreligious dialogue means realizing that when the faith of others is authentic, they have knowledge of the divine which is true. Even if this knowledge is different, it should be welcomed with humility,” adds Hamed Alaoui, member of the Muslim Values and Spirituality of France association.
Cohabitation of the gods
Certain questions come up regularly, such as that of the veil, or, during this 2023 school year, that of the abaya. Keltoum sees this as an opportunity to deepen reflection: “The veil can be worn automatically, like a cultural identity. But I encourage my students to question the reasons that push them to wear it.” This mother of two children regularly participates in a discussion group between Muslims and Catholics. The DIR group (for interreligious dialogue) brings together in an assembly (sometimes mixed, sometimes single-mixed) residents keen to share their knowledge. Discussions around figures common to the Koran and the Bible are particularly appreciated. A theme which also makes the “Saint-Maur picnic” a success, which brings together around 250 guests each year.
No unity without meeting
Semantics is also important: in the diocese as in the Conference of Bishops of France, the service for relations with Islam is now called the National Service for Relations with Muslims. “These are individuals who talk to each other, above all!” explains Colette Hamza, who for ten years directed the Institute of Science and Theology of Religions. A project launched in 1992 by Cardinal Coffy, whose implementation was entrusted to Jean-Marc Aveline. At the time, the first tensions relating to Islamic scarves had emerged in public debate following the Creil scarf affair (Oise). The need to think about dialogue taking into account the religious and social plurality of cities like Marseille then became clear.
At the same time, the town hall created Marseille Esperance, which brought together religious leaders from many faiths around the city councilor. Subsequently, the attacks reinforced the need for dialogue. “We were able to get through these events because strong bonds had been forged year after year. It would have been impossible without this upstream work,” assures Colette Hamza. The imperative need for dialogue is precisely the message that Pope Francis came to convey, he who is in no way unaware of the violence which regularly shakes the Marseille city. No unity is possible without meeting: it is not Sandra and Nadia who will say the opposite.