January 13, 2009 / 3:06 PM / 11 years ago

French faith leaders unite against Gaza backlash

By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

PARIS, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Religious leaders in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish minorities, are joining forces to denounce anti-Semitic violence and ward off wider repercussions from Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.

Leaders of the five-million-strong Muslim community have denounced attacks on synagogues and appealed for calm amid fears of further aggression against Jews, similar to the violence that broke out here at the start of the Palestinian uprising of 2000.

The heads of the Jewish, Muslim and Roman Catholic faiths in France, speaking after a meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy, announced they would issue a joint call for calm this week in addition to many individual appeals already made in recent days.

Sarkozy vowed on Monday to punish those behind firebombings of Jewish houses of worship in Paris and Strasbourg at the weekend, following a similar incident in Toulouse. There has also been an increase in anti-Semitic graffiti and hate speech.

Mohamed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), announced the joint appeal on Monday evening after meeting Sarkozy. "We are all working so we do not fall into the trap of tensions opposing Muslims and Jews," he said.

Standing next to him in the Elysee Palace courtyard, Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, representing France’s 600,000 Jews, said Sarkozy "was very pleased that this initiative came from religious leaders and not politicians".

"We are appealing to our fellow citizens’ sense of responsibility," said Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, head of the bishops conference of the majority Roman Catholic Church. RISE IN ANTI-SEMITIC ACTS

The French Jewish Students’ Union (UEJF) has published a list of 46 anti-Semitic acts in France it said have been committed since Dec. 27, when Israel began its bombardment of Gaza. Police have not issued any official overall figure.

The acts included swastikas and "Death to Jews" scrawled on walls, insults to rabbis, beatings of Jewish youths, rocks thrown at synagogues and firebombings causing minor damage.

The large Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF) has urged Muslims to demonstrate against Israel and imams to preach in support of the Palestinian cause.

A few hundred supporters of a militant Muslim group protest daily in Strasbourg, where the mayor joined local Jewish, Muslim and Catholic leaders last week to call for calm and dialogue.

Similar interfaith meetings have taken place in several other cities. "When you talk to these kids, they understand — but you have to talk to them," Gilbert Roger, mayor of the poor Paris suburb of Bondy, told the daily Le Monde.

While French religious leaders have worked together more closely this time than during the Palestinian uprising early in this decade, the path of cooperation is still rocky.

Since the Gaza offensive started, the Muslim leader Moussaoui has come in for criticism within the CFCM for seeking closer ties with the leading Jewish organisation CRIF.

Speaking to journalists, Moussaoui and Bernheim carefully balanced their support for opposing sides in Gaza with calls for interfaith cooperation in France.

"Jews and Muslims in France naturally feel for this or that side," the grand rabbi said. "What’s important is that religious leaders don’t turn these feelings into hardened positions." (Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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