People hold a banner with a picture of French priest Fr. Jacques Hamel, which reads Where there is hatred, let me sow love

CNS PHOTO | BENOIT TESSIER, REUTERS

People hold a banner with a picture of French priest Fr. Jacques Hamel, which reads "Where there is hatred, let me sow love,"

August 15, 2016
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Father Jacques Hamel's gruesome murder in northern France July 26 - by men claiming allegiance to the Islamic State - prompted sorrow and outrage from Muslim and Catholic leaders around the world.

The slaying also brought forth calls for greater interfaith understanding as well as pleas to avoid stereotyping of and intolerance toward Muslims based on terrorist incidents.

"This attack in a place of worship and on innocent worshippers in particular demonstrates that there are no boundaries to the depravity of these murderers," wrote Imam Qari Muhammad Asim, senior imam at the Makkah Mosque in Leeds, England.

The knife-wielding attackers slit the throat of 85-year-old Hamel and injured two others in the church, Eglise St.-Étienne in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, before they were fatally shot by police.

"In this extremely difficult time for the Catholic community, we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of all faiths," the English imam said in a statement.

"An attack on any place of worship is an attack on a way of life of faith communities and therefore an attack on all of us."

Pope Francis, speaking to journalists aboard his return flight from World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland, July 31, stressed that violence exists in all religions, including Catholicism.

"I do not like to speak of Islamic violence because every day when I look through the papers, I see violence here in Italy," the pope said. "And they are baptized Catholics. There are violent Catholics. If I speak of Islamic violence, I also have to speak of Catholic violence."

Although Hamel's murder was committed in the name of Islam, the pope said that it is unfair to label an entire religion violent because of the actions of a few fundamentalists.

"I do not think it is right to identify Islam with violence. This is not right and it is not true," he said.

Police said two men, armed with knives, entered Église St.-Étienne during the July 26 Mass and slit Hamel's throat. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack via its news site.

A nun who witnessed the attack described the scene to French radio station RMC.

"In the church, everyone screamed 'Stop, you don't know what you're doing.' They didn't stop. They forced him to his knees; he tried to defend himself, and it was then that the drama began," said the nun, who identified herself as Sister Danielle.

Fr. Jacques Hamel is seen during a June 11 service in the priest's church in Normandy.

CNS PHOTO | PAROISSE SAINT-ETIENNE VIA EPA

Fr. Jacques Hamel is seen during a June 11 service in the priest's church in Normandy.

"They recorded themselves (on video). They did a little - like a sermon - around the altar in Arabic. It was a horror."

The sister escaped the church and flagged down a car for help.

She told RMC about her respect for her colleague.

"It's necessary to remember that this was an extraordinary priest," Sister Danielle said. "That's all I want to say. He's great, Father Jacques."

Mohammed Karabila, president of the Regional Muslim Council of Normandy, told a French newspaper he was "distressed at the death of his friend" Father Hamel.

Karabila said the two of them had worked together on an interfaith committee for nearly two years since the beginning of Islamic State attacks in France.

He described the priest as "a man of peace, of religion, with a certain charisma. A person who dedicated his life and his ideas to his religion. He sacrificed his life for others."

CATHOLIC-MUSLIM SOLIDARITY

The solidarity among Catholics and Muslims was evident July 31 when Muslim leaders and community members attended Masses at the Notre Dame cathedrals in Paris and Rouen, and Catholic basilicas in Rome.

At Rome's Basilica of St. Mary in Trastevere, dozens of Muslims joined members of the Community of Sant'Egidio and parishioners for the main morning Mass.

Mohammed ben Mohammed, imam of a nearby mosque, told worshippers that those who murdered Father Hamel "have nothing to do with Islam."

"They are dangerous and the enemies of Islam," he said.

Imam Suhaib Webb, a Muslim scholar in Washington, told Catholic News Service July 28 that Hamel's death filled him with "absolute astonishment and an incredible sense of horror."

The imam said young Muslims, who are part of his online social media outreach, have been praising the priest because they recognize he was an ally.

Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen, who was in Kraków, Poland, with World Youth Day pilgrims when the attack occurred, returned to his archdiocese.

"The Catholic Church can take up no weapons other than those of prayer and brotherhood among people of goodwill," Lebrun said in a statement from Kraków.

NEED FOR FORGIVENESS

Then, during the Aug. 2 funeral Mass for Hamel, Lebrun stressed the need for forgiveness.

"As brutal and unfair and horrible as (Father) Jacques' death was, we have to look deep into our hearts to find the light," he told the congregation of more than 1,500 at the Notre Dame Cathedral.

In his homily, the archbishop said the beloved 85-year-old parish priest tried to push away his attackers with his feet, saying "go away, Satan" twice.

With those words, the archbishop said the priest expressed "faith in the goodness of humans that the devil put his claws in."

Roselyne Hamel, the priest's sister, urged the congregation to "learn to live together" and be "workers for peace."

Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil, Iraq, was another Church leader in Kraków for World Youth Day.

He told Catholic News Service the attack in France reminded him of the 2010 massacre in Baghdad's Church of Our Lady of Deliverance.

At that time, terrorists "held the people inside the church" during Sunday evening Mass "and killed two priests and then started killing the rest." A total of 48 people were killed and more than 100 were injured.

PRAY FOR ISIS

"This is the sort of world we are living in," Warda said. Just as Catholics pray for Hamel and others affected by the murder, "we pray for all of ISIS so they could really wake up and know the God of mercy."

Jordan Denari Duffner, a research fellow at Georgetown University's Bridge Initiative studying Islamophobia, said she has been "disappointed by a number of comments made by Catholics, even clergy, on social media who are reacting to this tragedy in a way that blames Muslims and their religion and that seems to sow more division than bonds."

"As Catholics, our response to Father Jacques' murder in Normandy must be to open our arms wider to our Muslim brothers and sisters," she said.

The priest, who was friends with the town's imam, would want that, Duffner said.

Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley told reporters at World Youth Day that it is a great danger to demonize Islam after such an attack.

"We are talking here about fanatic terrorists who are persecuting Christians and we have to be very clear we are not painting everyone with the same brush."