Muslims attend Catholic services across France, Italy to mourn slain priest

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ROUEN (France): In a gesture of solidarity following the gruesome killing of a French priest, Muslims on Sunday attended Cath­olic Mass in churches and cathed­rals across France and Italy.

A few dozen Muslims gathered at the towering Gothic cathedral in Rouen, near Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray where the 85-year-old Rev Jacques Hamel had his throat slit by two teenage Muslim fanatics on Tuesday.

“We are very moved by the presence of our Muslim friends and I believe it is a courageous act that they did by coming to us,” Dominique Lebrun, the archbishop of Rouen, said after the service.

Some of the Muslims sat in the front row, across from the altar. Among the parishioners was one of the nuns who was briefly taken hostage at Hamel’s church when he was killed. She joined her fellow Catholics in turning to shake hands or embrace the Muslim churchgoers after the service.

Outside the church, a group of Muslims were applauded when they unfurled a banner that said: “Love for all. Hate for none.”

Churchgoer Jacqueline Prevot said the attendance of Muslims was “a magnificent gesture”. “Look at this whole Muslim community that attended Mass,” she said. “I find this very heart-warming. I am confident. I say to myself that this assassination won’t be lost, that it will maybe re-launch us better than politics can do. Maybe we will react in a better way.”

Similar interfaith gatherings were repeated elsewhere in France, as well as in neighbouring Italy.

At the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Mosque of Paris, said repeatedly that Muslims wanted to live in peace.

“The situation is serious,” he told BFMTV. “Time has come to come together so as not to be divided.”

In Italy, the secretary general of the country’s Islamic Confedera­tion, Abdullah Cozzolino, spoke from the altar in the Treasure of St Gennaro chapel next to Naples’ Duomo cathedral. Three imams also attended Mass at the St Maria Church in Rome’s Trastevere neighbourhood, donning their traditional dress as they entered the sanctuary and sat down in the front row.

Mohammed bin Mohammed, a member of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy, said he had called on the faithful in his sermon on Friday “to report anyone who may be intent on damaging society. I am sure that there are those among the faithful who are ready to speak up.”

Ahmed El Balzai, the imam of the Vobarno mosque in the Lombard province of Brescia, said he did not fear repercussions for speaking out. “I am not afraid. … These people are tainting our religion and it is terrible to know that many people consider all Muslims terrorists. That is not the case,” El Balzai said. “Religion is one thing. Another is the behaviour of Muslims who don’t represent us.”

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni thanked Italian Muslims for their participation, saying they “are showing their communities the way of courage against fundamentalism”.

Like in France, Italy is increasing its supervision of mosques. Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told the Senate this week that authorities were scrutinising mosque financing and working with the Muslim community to ensure that imams study in Italy, preach in Italian and are aware of Italy’s legal structuring.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said it had requested that a cousin of one of the two 19-year-olds who slit the priest’s throat be charged with participating in “a terrorist association with the aim of harming others”. In a statement, it said it appeared a 30-year-old French­man identified as Farid K. “knew very well, if not of the exact place or time, of his cousin’s impending plans for violence”.

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