At French priest's funeral, leaders affirm faith in fight with terror

During the funeral for a Roman Catholic priest killed at the altar by militants, French religious leaders again insisted that an attack on a church would not sow the division intended by ISIS-linked attackers.

Jacky Naegelen/Reuters
Muslims gather outside the Cathedral in Rouen, France, during a funeral service in memory of slain French parish priest Father Jacques Hamel on August 2. Father Jacques Hamel was killed last week in an attack on a church at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray by assailants linked to Islamic State.

Thousands of Catholics, Muslims, and others met Tuesday for the funeral of a French priest who was murdered during Mass, as religious leaders prepare to fight more actively against terror in officially secular France. 

Religious leaders used the funeral service to reiterate a point they made within days of the attack by Islamic State militants on the Roman Catholic church: faith's potential to foster dialogue and understanding, despite terrorists' use of religion to justify violence – and a clear, unified message of defiance in challenging the idea that ISIS can define their faith or their response to violence.

Dominique Lebrun, the archbishop of Rouen, presided over the service for the priest Jacques Hamel at the Normandy cathedral. The archbishop thanked the Muslim attendees "in the name of all Christians," saying, "In this way you are affirming that you reject death and violence in the name of God," as Voice of America reported.

During the service for the priest of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, who was murdered while celebrating Mass on July 26, Lebrun called the strict privatization of French faith "an error," and thanked "believers of other religious faiths, in particular the Jewish community and the Muslim community, very affected and already decided to unite for: 'Never again.'"

Hundreds of mourners from many faiths also stood in the rain outside the cathedral, watching the service on a screen in the square, the Associated Press reported, following a weekend which saw Muslims and Catholics attending Mass in France and Italy to show solidarity following the attack. 

"The strong faith of Father Jacques Hamel, and the strong faith that held him up until that moment where he kept going on even though he was 85 years old – he was doing that out of faith and out of love for these people," says Fr. Matthew Schneider LC, a Catholic priest in the Washington, D.C. area. "I think it's important to see that his faith led to that."

Fr. Schneider urges followers of any faith to fight terror by attending a service, and hopes the attacks can embolden efforts to separate the extremists of Islamic State from the large majority of Muslims who reject it.

"A lot of times Muslims don't understand Christianity, and we Christians don't understand Islam," he says. "A hope would be for this to lead to dialogue and more understanding and a more peaceful coexistence between Islam and Christianity."

On Sunday, Pope Francis addressed his reluctance to link Islam with terrorism, telling reporters that fundamentalism and violence seep into every faith. 

"I don't like to talk of Islamic violence because every day, when I go through the newspapers, I see violence, this man who kills his girlfriend, another who kills his mother-in-law," he said. "And these are baptized Catholics. If I speak of Islamic violence, then I have to speak of Catholic violence."

After the Rouen attack, however, on the heels of the Bastille Day massacre in Nice, that logic rings hollow for some French Catholics, who have since taken to Twitter with the hashtag #PasMonPape, or "#NotMyPope." 

This July 26 attack and the outpouring of interfaith relations that followed are increasing the visible role of religious leaders in French society. The strengthening of these ties among Catholic and Muslim leaders is likely to continue, as the slain priest was noted for his interfaith work, says R. Andrew Chesnut, chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. It has already emboldened Muslim leaders in Europe, and they will speak more forcefully in the public square about the dangers of extremism. 

Even before the funeral, Muslim leaders in France issued a rare, combined statement on the attacks, suggesting their efforts to assimilate into French culture through "invisibility" had not only failed, but had left the young vulnerable to the louder, more forceful guidance of radicals, the AP noted. With Muslims constituting 7.6 percent of its population, France has the largest Muslim community in Europe. 

"We were silent because we learned that in France religion is a private affair," wrote the group of more than 40 Muslim French professionals, referring to the longstanding French tradition of strict secularity. "Now we must speak because Islam has become a public affair and the current situation is intolerable."

Muslim leaders are not only renouncing violence, but also trying to take an active role in French public life for the first time. During Friday prayers at the mosque in the town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, both Muslim worshippers and Catholics, who gathered to support their neighbors, heard a thunderous condemnation directed at the priest's killers, the AP reported.

"You have the wrong civilization, because you are not a part of civilization," said the imam, Abdelatif Hmitou, rhetorically addressing the attackers. "You have the wrong humanity, because you are not a part of humanity. You have the wrong idea about us [Muslims], and we won't forgive you for this."

He pointed out that the Sainte Thérèse church had sold land to their Muslim neighbors for a nominal sum so they could build a place for worship. The president of the area's Muslim organization and the imam have since announced that they will not officiate for or bury Adel Kermiche, one of the two attackers, who declared his loyalty to the Islamic State militant group.

Instead, they have suggested French Muslims reach out to Christian neighbors, sometimes by attending a Mass.

"[Attending the funeral] was a duty," Hassan Houays, a Muslim math teacher from the priest's town told AFP. "We are here so that we can get along together."

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