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Religious leaders plead for dialogue, peace as riots convulse France

A person stands near a burning vehicle July 1, 2023, as unrest continues following the killing of a 17-year-old teenager by a French police officer during a traffic stop, in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, France. (REUTERS/Yves Herman)

(OSV News) — The leaders of the Conference of Religious Leaders in France, representing Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Buddhist communities, issued a June 30 joint statement appealing for peace, harmony and fraternity amid violent protests that have engulfed the country.

The unrest broke out June 27 after Nahel M., a 17-year-old of Algerian and Moroccan descent, was shot by police during a traffic stop in Nanterre, a Paris suburb. Police violence and racism — particularly toward those who are of Arabic or black African descent in France, especially Muslims — has been alleged as playing a role in Nahel’s killing.

“We share the pain of Nahel’s family and pray for them, especially for his mother. We hear the suffering and anger being expressed,” religious leaders wrote in their appeal.

“We encourage our leaders and the Nation’s elected representatives to work together, with responsibility, to bring back justice and peace,” they said.

A police officer involved in the shooting has been charged with voluntary homicide and arrested. He claimed to have fired the shot fearing that he, his colleague or someone else could be hit by the car, according to The Guardian.

The Guardian reported, however, that video footage circulating on social media showed Nahel’s car was stationary when one of the two police officers had a gun drawn point blank at the driver. “You are going to get a bullet in the head,” a voice is heard saying, before the car attempts to leave and a shot is fired.

Protests following Nahel’s killing quickly became riots, and 45,000 police officers were deployed across France to respond to chaotic mobs looting buildings and torching vehicles.

Nearly 1,000 people were arrested in France on June 30 alone, mostly in Marseille and Lyon, where the situation is critical. Across France, hundreds of police and firefighters have been injured in the riots.

The June 30 interreligious peace appeal was signed by Chems-Eddine Hafiz, rector of the Grand Mosque in Paris, Chief Rabbi of France Haïm Korsia, Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, president of the French bishops’ conference, Msgr. Demetrios Ploumios, president of the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops of France, Pastor Christian Krieger, president of the Protestant Federation of France, and Antony Boussemart, president of the Buddhist Union of France.

Noting “this time of great sorrow for our neighborhoods and our country,” the leaders said in the appeal they “call together for dialogue and peace.”

“We also affirm with one voice that violence is never the right path,” their appeal stated.

It continued, “We deeply deplore the destruction of schools, stores, town halls, means of transport … The first to suffer the consequences of this are precisely the inhabitants, families and children of these neighborhoods.”

“In these difficult times, we call for the preservation and consolidation of the necessary bond of trust between the population and the forces of law and order, who have given so much during the ordeals our country has been through,” religious leaders said in their appeal.

“May all believers be today, more than ever, servants of peace and the common good. Together, we are ready to make our contribution,” it stated.

President Emmanuel Macron postponed a planned state visit to Germany, and warned against unrest further spreading across France, calling for calm in a situation fraught with racial and religious tension.

Info Chrétienne reported the congregation and pastor of the Philadelphia Evangelical Protestant Church in Marseille on June 28 “discovered their place of worship had been ransacked.”

The prayer hall was destroyed, doors and windows smashed and walls were sprayed with provocative messages as “The last prophet is Mohamed” and “Jesus is not God.”

Rumors also spread on Twitter that in Saint-Etienne, Father Francis Pelle, 80, was seriously beaten, stripped and left unconscious. However, his diocese clarified Father Pelle was the victim of a robbery in which his money and phone were stolen; but he did not lose consciousness and was not attacked for being a priest or within the context of the riots.

On July 1, French bishops published a prayer for peace on their website calling for “the return of calm and peace to our country.”

The bishops also prayed for Nahel whose funeral ceremony took place July 1 in Nanterre. They prayed, “We entrust Nahel to you and pray for his loved ones. May the Spirit of light and peace sustain them.”

“We entrust to you the wounded of these nights of violence, and those whose homes and workplaces have been destroyed or damaged,” the French bishops’ prayer continued.

The bishops also prayed for law enforcement and the government “under great pressure and sometimes under attack.”

The prayer ended, “We beg you again: that even beyond the current explosions, our society will be able to identify the sources of violence with lucidity, and find the means to overcome them.”

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