French Muslims attend mass in solidarity, refuse burial for priest killers

Religious leaders have rallied together since the attack with senior Muslims encouraging the faithful to show solidarity by attending church congregations

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Muslims across France and Italy attended Catholic Mass on Sunday in a gesture of solidarity after the shocking murder of a Catholic priest by ISIS militants.

Reverend Jacques Hamel, 85, was killed on Tuesday in his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen by two men who had pledged allegiance to ISIS.

Adel Kermiche and Abdel-Malik Petitjean, both 19, stormed the church during Mass. They took five people hostage, wounding one and killing Hamel.

Kermiche forced Hamel to his knees before slitting his throat at the foot of the altar.

The pair were shot dead by police as they tried to escape from the 17th-century stone church.

Religious leaders have rallied together since the attack with senior Muslims encouraging the faithful to show solidarity by attending church congregations amid fears that the recent wave of attacks across France could lead to anti-Muslim backlash.

“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, told the Associated Press 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: “Love for all. Hate for none.”

Churchgoer Jacqueline Prevot told the Associated Press that the attendance of Muslims was “a magnificent gesture.”

“Look at this whole Muslim community that attended Mass,” she said. “I find this very heartwarming. I am confident. I say to myself that this assassination won't be lost, that it will maybe relaunch us better than politics can do. Maybe we will react in a better way.”

Many of the Muslims who attended the service in Rouen - including those with the banner - were Ahmadiyya Muslims, a minority sect that differs from mainstream Islam in that it doesn’t regard Muhammad as the final prophet.

Mohammed Karabila, President of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray Mosque, also attended the service.

Karabila is one of the Muslim leaders who has refused to give a Muslim burial to the two militants responsible for the attack, French newspaper Le Parisien reported on Friday.

Karabila told Le Parisien that the local community would not contribute to the burial regardless of the wishes of Kermiche’s family.

Another religious leader said the burial would “taint Islam.”

Local Muslims have disowned Kermiche since the attack, describing his acts as “sinful.”

The mayor’s office will make the final decision on whether Kermiche can be buried in the town.

As in Rouen, similar interfaith gatherings were repeated elsewhere in France, as well as in neighboring Italy.

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

“The situation is serious,” Boubakeur 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 neighborhood, donning their traditional dress as they entered the sanctuary and sat down in the front row.

Mohammed ben Mohammed, a member of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy, said he called on the faithful in his sermon 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 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.”

Like in France, Italy is increasing its supervision of mosques. 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 it has 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 it 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 added that a Syrian refugee detained in the wake of the attack was released Saturday.

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