Pope calls for respect between faiths as he comforts victims of Nice attack

Pope Francis invites survivors and families of the victims of Bastille Day bombing to the Vatican for multi-faith meeting and praises "inter-religion" relations in Nice.
Pope Francis blesses a photo he is shown on a smartphone during a meeting with relatives of Nice's attack victims during a special audience in the Vatican, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016.  Andrew Medichini / AP
Pope Francis blesses a photo he is shown on a smartphone during a meeting with relatives of Nice's attack victims during a special audience in the Vatican, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. Andrew Medichini / AP

VATICAN CITY // Pope Francis on Saturday called for “a sincere dialogue” between Christians and Muslims as he met grieving relatives and survivors of the Bastille Day attack in Nice, in which an extremist drove a lorry into crowds celebrating the French national day.

The pope, who this week denounced violence in the name of religion — declaring “there is no God of war” -- held a multi-faith reception for 180 people who were wounded, or left traumatised or bereaved by the July 14 attack in Nice which claimed 86 lives.

“We need to start a sincere dialogue and have fraternal relations between everybody, especially those who believe in a sole God who is merciful,” he said, speaking in the Vatican’s giant Paul VI audience hall. Such a dialogue was “an urgent priority,” the pontiff added.

“It is with a feeling of great emotion that I am meeting you, those who are suffering in body and in spirit because an evening of festivity turned into one of violence which struck blindly at all, without taking into account their origins or religion. We can only respond to the Devil’s attacks with God’s works which are forgiveness, love and respect for the other, even if they are different.”

The pope began his solemn address by apologising for not speaking French because he said his command of the language was not “bon”, and then switched to Italian to urge those present not to give in to the temptation to react with hate and violence.

Among the 1,000 people who attended the ceremony were members of the Jewish community in Nice and a local Muslim imam.

“It makes me happy to see that inter-religious relations are very vibrant among you, and this cannot but soothe the wounds left by this dramatic event,” said the pope.

ISIL militants claimed responsibility for the July 14 attack. Less than two weeks later, two young ISIL adherents murdered an elderly French priest, Father Jacques Hamel, in his church, prompting Pope Francis to declare the “the world is at war”.

But the pope also insisted the war was not a religious one, and that it was wrong to “identify Islam with violence”, suggesting instead that the lack of economic opportunities for young people in Europe was one of the causes of terrorism.

After speaking briefly, the pope descended from the pulpit and spent more than 45 minutes meeting and offering comfort to those who attended the ceremony, many of whom were in tears.

Members of 58 families were flown to Rome especially from the French Riviera resort city. They were joined in Rome by 150 others who travelled from France by road. The gathering included a delegation from a French regional inter-religious group, including the Catholic bishop of Nice and representatives from the Orthodox and Protestant Christian communities.

A third of the victims of the Nice attack were of the Muslim faith, said Imam Boubekeur Bekri, vice-president of the Southeast France regional Muslim council, who was also at the meeting. Mr Bekri praised the pope’s “intense humanism”, demonstrated by his visit to mainly Muslim refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Maurice Niddam, president of the Jewish community in Nice also praised a pope “open to all faiths”.

Last month the Argentine pontiff met French President Francois Hollande to offer his support and condolences to a country which has been rocked by a series of deadly attacks since early 2015.

While speaking out against violent acts carried out in the name of any god, Francis this week reminded the West that there were parts of the world where the violence never stops. Speaking in the Italian town of Assisi on Tuesday he said, “We are frightened ... by some terrorist acts but this is nothing compared to what is happening in those countries, in those lands where day and night bombs fall.”

A total of 434 people were injured in the July 14 attack. Vincent Delhommel Desmarest, 49, who runs a restaurant on the Promenade des Anglais, the scene of the Nice tragedy, said he has been on sick leave ever since and now sees a psychologist three times a week.

“I don’t sleep at night. The whole scene of the lorry moving, the mutilated bodies, decapitated, the entrails ...,” he said. He has decided to create a local association to support the victims of that terrible night.

French police on Tuesday arrested eight associates of Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian, who rammed a 19-tonne lorry through a crowd of more than 30,000 people on the seafront Promenade des Anglais on July 14 before police shot him dead.

* Reuters

Published: September 24, 2016 04:00 AM

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