Palm Sunday: The bells of the Saint-Etienne church rang out under the grey sky in Trebes on Sunday as hundreds of mourners, both Christian and Muslim, came together to pay their respects to the people who died in the deadly shooting that shook the tiny rural French community two days ago.
“Everyone knows each other here. It’s a small village, The people who were killed, they were our friends,” said a pensioner, Louis, his eyes filled with tears.
He was one of more than 100 people who could not fit into the packed church, but stood instead in the biting cold to listen to the mass via loudspeakers on the square outside.
Heavily-armed gendarmes patrolled in front of and around the Gothic church and guarded the barriers set up to keep the teams of reporters and camera crews away from the grief-stricken mourners making their way to the memorial service bearing olive or laurel branches.
Among the mourners was Sarah, 23, a former employee of the Super U supermarket where the attacker, Radouane Lakdim, shot dead two people on Friday.
Wearing a veil and an abaya, she said she feared being shunned, but had decided to attend the service nevertheless.
“It’s important to be here. I knew the victims,” she said.
“God is for everyone. We’re all human beings. His House is open to everyone,” said Rabiha, a Muslim from the nearby village of Carcassonne, where, before laying siege to the supermarket, Lakdim hijacked a car, killing the passenger and leaving the Portuguese driver in a critical condition.
An 81-year-old villager called Solange expressed similar sentiments.
“It takes a very deep faith to accept all this, this fighting between religions. It is the same god we worship, Muslims, Christians and Jews.”
Official representatives of the Muslim community were among the congregation inside the church, their faces tight and drawn.
“Your presence tell us that the creators of hatred will not win,” said the Bishop of Carcassonne and Narbonne, Monsignor Alain Planet, during the service.
– ‘Islam has been stabbed’ –
The Muslim community, and even Islam itself, have been “stabbed by the people who use the symbols that are close to our hearts,” said the Imam of the Carcassonne mosque, Mohamed Belmihoub, as he left the service.
“‘Allah Akbar’, is a symbol of the adoration of God. It means that God is greater than hate,” he said, adding: “We cannot find the words. We are in shock.”
The Imam said he attended the service “to prove that France is mother to everyone. We’re part of this country. It is multi-coloured, multi-faith France. Everyone has to get this into their heads. We have to live together and fight these lost sheep.”
The service was held on Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week for Christians, which culminates in Easter next weekend.
Bishop Planet paid tribute to Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, 44, who was shot and stabbed by Lakdim, after taking the place of a woman hostage whom the attacker had been using as a human shield.
“At the beginning of this Holy Week, and as we watch Christ take our place to save us from death, (Beltrame’s) gesture takes on a very special meaning, and I’m sure that he was not unaware of it when he made it,” the clergyman said.
Beltrame “is eternal forever,” said Imam Belmihoub. “There are people who know how to die in greatness and people who will remain cowards forever, alive or dead”.