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Muslims, Christians come together in France

In the aftermath of the brutal attack on a church where Islamist militants killed a priest, Christians and Muslims have come together across the country to pray and show support. Jake Cigainero reports from Paris.

The priest at Saint-Michel, a church in Paris, opened Sunday's mass by offering a welcome to any Muslims who had come to pray alongside Christians and inviting comments from anyone who wished to speak.

A woman's voice from the back echoed through vaulted stone sanctuary and said, "I do not agree!" She slipped out of the church, and the priest addressed the diverse congregation of about 120 saying, "We are going to share anyway."

After last week's gruesome murder of a priest by two teenage Muslim extremists in a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy, leaders of the French Muslim Council had encouraged Muslims to visit Christian churches over the weekend to show "solidarity and compassion." Catholic leaders told churches to give a "fraternal welcome."

People after Sunday mass in Paris (photo: DW/J.Cigainero)

"It's good that the church invited Muslims to mass," said Benard, one of the churchgoers at Saint-Michel in Paris

Christians and Muslims came together in Rouen near Saint-Etienne, at Paris' historic Notre Dame Cathedral and in other pockets of France.

Boris Benard, a regular attendee at the Saint-Michel parish tucked away in the 17th arrondissement did not share the opinion of the woman who walked out.

"It's good that the church invited Muslims to mass," he told DW. "I don't know if any came here, but it's a nice gesture to assimilate, for coexistence, and to help people not be afraid to come to church after what's happened."

Benard added the men who murdered the priest in Normandy had nothing to do with Islam. "They were simple-minded, unbalanced people who committed a stupid act," he said.

'We can't be afraid'

Emilia Fernandez, another Saint-Michel regular, said the attack wasn't going to stop her from going to church, or from doing anything else for that matter.

"I live freely. What happened could happen here, it could happen anywhere," she said. "We can't be afraid."

In the aftermath of the priest's murder, local Catholic leaders have reiterated their longstanding friendly relationships with the Muslim community. The murdered priest Jacques Hamel and Mohammed Karabila, president of the regional Muslim council in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, were friends and worked together on an interfaith initiative. The mosque there was built on land donated by the neighboring Catholic Church Sainte-Therese du Madrillet.

Security concerns have grown for religious leaders between attacks by Islamic extremists and increasing hate speech towards Muslims from the far right and violent acts committed by its supporters.

A Muslim woman looks on as people attend a Mass in tribute to priest Jacques Hamel in the Rouen Cathedral (photo: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

Christians and Muslims also came together in the Rouen Cathedral to mourn murdered priest Jacques Hamel

Following the church attack, President Francois Hollande met with religious leaders from different faiths - including Christianity, Islam and Judaism - who all asked for more protection around places of worship.

With both killers having been under police surveillance for trying to join "Islamic State" (IS) in Syria, and with the Bastille Day attack in Nice less than two weeks before, Hollande is facing criticism from the right that his government is ineffective in fighting and preventing terrorism.

Increased security

After multiple defense and security counsel meetings, France's Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that security across the country would increase, especially in regions outside Paris. Le Drian said 4,000 more military forces would be deployed in Paris and 6,000 throughout the rest of the country, especially to guard religious sites and places of worship.

There was no security presence at the Saint-Michel parish Sunday morning, though there was more security at sites such as Notre Dame Cathedral and the Normandy church where services were held for the slain priest.

Over the last 18 months, France has been hit by terrorist attacks at a satirical newspaper, a kosher super market, in its cafés, a concert hall, a sports stadium, and now in another of its principle cultural symbols: a church. If the French reacted in the same way to the priest's murder at the hands of killers claiming allegiance to IS as they have to other attacks, a surge in church attendance might be expected.

Abdallah Zebra (r) in front of Notre Dame in Paris (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Mattia)

French Islamic Council secretary Abdallah Zebra (r) came to show support for Christians at Notre Dame in Paris

According to weekly regular Benard, the gathering at his parish was average. Paris churches are, after all, seeing an expected summer slump in attendance with vacation beginning. The city is notoriously empty during August and residential neighborhoods away from tourist attractions can feel like ghost towns in the middle of the day. Otherwise, perhaps Paris churches would have had higher turnouts over the weekend.

But the French are also burning out on the calls for solidarity that follow every attack. After Charlie Hebdo last year, the trending hashtag was "Je suis Charlie." Then it was "Je suis Paris" in November. Last month, there was "Je suis Nice," and then appeared "Je suis épuissé" - "I am exhausted."

Vall wants new 'pact' with Islam

For Prime Minister Manuel Valls, it's going to take more from France's Muslim community than praying with Christians to move forward. He told French media France needs a new "pact" with Islam. Expanding on that statement in an editorial in Le Journal du Dimanche, Valls says he wants to "reconstruct the Islam of France" and for the country to be a model for the rest of Europe.

He primarily suggests forbidding foreign funding for mosques, as well as rethinking training for imams and allowing them to be educated only in France. Valls blames foreign influences for developing fundamentalist Muslim communities in France that oppose French values.

Valls writes, "If Islam does not help the Republic combat those who challenge public freedoms, it will be harder and harder for the Republic to guarantee freedom of religion."

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