"We are very moved by the presence of our Muslim friends"
(ROUEN, France) — Muslims in France and Italy flocked to Mass on Sunday, a gesture of interfaith solidarity following a drumbeat of jihadi attacks that threatens to deepen religious divisions across Europe.
From the towering Gothic cathedral in Rouen, only a few miles from where 85-year-old Rev. Jacques Hamel was killed Tuesday by two Muslim fanatics, to Paris’ iconic Notre Dame, where the rector of the Mosque of Paris invoked a papal benediction in Latin, many churchgoers were cheered by the Muslims in their midst.
Interviewed outside the cathedral in Rouen, Jacqueline Prevot called it “a magnificent gesture.”
“Look at this whole Muslim community that attended Mass,” she said. “I find this very heartwarming.”
French television broadcast scenes of interfaith solidarity from all around France, with Muslim women in headscarves and Jewish men in kippot crowding the front rows of Catholic cathedrals in Lille, Calais or the Basilica of St. Denis, the traditional resting place of French royalty.
There were similar scenes in Italy, where the head of Italy’s Union of Islamic communities — Izzedin Elzir — called on his colleagues to “take this historic moment to transform tragedy into a moment of dialogue.” The secretary general of the country’s Islamic Confederation, Abdullah Cozzolino spoke at the Treasure of St. Gennaro chapel; three imams also attended Mass at the St. Maria Church in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, donning their traditional dress as they entered the sanctuary and sat down in the front row.
Ahmed El Balazi, the imam of the Vobarno mosque in Italy’s Lombard province of Brescia, said he did not fear repercussions for speaking out.
“These people are tainting our religion and it is terrible to know that many people consider all Muslim terrorists. That is not the case,” El Balazi said. “Religion is one thing. Another is the behavior 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.”
Among the parishioners in Rouen was a nun who survived Tuesday’s siege in nearby Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray , which began when two 19-year-old attackers stormed a stone church and killed Hamel as he celebrated morning Mass. She joined her fellow Catholics in turning to shake hands or embrace the Muslim churchgoers after the service.
At Notre Dame cathedral in the French capital, Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Mosque of Paris, said repeatedly that Muslims want to live in peace. Boubakeur, in a fraternal nod to the Catholic Church, said he was addressing “Urbi et Orbi” — a Latin blessing long identified with the pope and meaning “to the city and the world.”
France and Italy are both increasing their supervision of mosques after the spate of jihadi attacks, including Tuesday’s attack in France and the July 14 atrocity in Nice in which a Muslim truck driver plowed through a crowd of revelers, killing 84 people. Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told the Senate this week that authorities were scrutinizing mosque financing and working with the Islamic community to ensure that imams study in Italy, preach in Italian and are aware of Italy’s legal structuring.
The Paris prosecutor’s office, meanwhile, said a cousin of one of the two 19-year-olds who killed the priest faces preliminary charges of participating in “a terrorist association with the aim of harming others.”
The 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,” the office said in a statement.
In a related development, the prosecutor’s office said a man identified as Jean-Philippe Steven J. faces preliminary charges connected to an attempt to reach Syria last month with one of the two French priest’s killers.