Social Issues

Pope’s first visit to Marseille in nearly five centuries overshadowed by rugby

Nerea González

Marseille, France, Sep 21 (EFE).- In the center of Marseille on this Thursday, the eve of Pope Francis’s arrival to conclude the Mediterranean Encounters, there was little religious atmosphere. Blue jerseys, wigs, beer, and stadium chants dominated a city more focused on its national rugby team’s performance in the World Cup.

Bars and terraces were crowded with oval ball sports enthusiasts who either didn’t have tickets or hadn’t yet made their way to the Velodrome Stadium, where the France-Namibia match will be played on Thursday night, the same place where the Pontiff will offer a Mass to almost 60,000 faithful on Saturday.

Even some tourists, like Lorena and Marcelo from Villa Devoto, Buenos Aires, who had come to visit family, only found out about the Pope’s visit when they arrived in Marseille.

“We found out when we went up to the cathedral,” this couple told EFE with laughter. For them, despite being believers but not practitioners, this twist of fate is “incredible” since they don’t believe they’ll have the opportunity to see Jorge Bergoglio back in Buenos Aires.

Even in the souvenir stalls of the so-called “Phocaean city” – named after the Greek sailors who founded it around 600 BC – there were no images of Francis, even though the Mediterranean Encounters, which the Pope will come to close, began last Sunday.

This event, celebrating its third edition, brings bishops from around thirty countries and young people of different nationalities to promote communion among believers in the Mediterranean region.

Due to its port nature, the Phocaean city has a rich history of migrants and passersby. This characteristic, along with being one of Europe’s major gateways to the Mediterranean, explains Francis’ visit, who emphasized that he was not visiting France but Marseille.

From here, he will send governments a message about the migrant crisis that has turned the Mediterranean into a massive cemetery.

A city caught in a spiral of violence

To ensure security, Marseille will deploy 5,000 police officers, gendarmes, and a thousand private security agents, as announced by the Police Prefect of the Bouches-du-Rhône department, Frédérique Camilleri, last week.

The security measures aim to prevent both “terrorist threats” and “criminal acts” as well as other potential disruptions, Camilleri explained, and the Air Force will be deployed over the port city to create an “air bubble” of protection.

These measures underscore the exceptional nature of this papal visit but also highlight the problems besieging the coastal city, whose nearly 900,000 inhabitants make it the second most populous in France. The town is in the midst of a spiral of drug-related killings.

As of September 12, the number of people murdered in the city for drug-related reasons had already reached 44, with 109 injured, according to the Marseille Prosecutor’s Office data. Despite the additional security reinforcements sent by the government, the death toll far exceeded the total for 2022, which was 31, and was already considered one of the bloodiest years in Marseille since the beginning of this century.

With these numbers, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region (whose capital is Marseille) had the highest homicide rate in mainland France in 2022, with 2.4 per 100,000 inhabitants, nearly double the national average (1.3 per 100,000), according to the Ministry of the Interior.

Drug trafficking is considered the backdrop for 80% of homicides and attempted homicides in Phocaean. The reasons for the deaths include street fights over control of drug sales points, clashes between rival gangs, and occasional deaths from stray bullets in shootouts. EFE


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