Christians in the Middle East are the victims of “religious cleansing”, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France warned yesterday following a string of attacks on churches in the region.
Mr Sarkozy made the statement while giving his annual address to religious leaders as Coptic Christians were due to celebrate Christmas yesterday, according to the eastern Orthodox church calendar.
“We cannot accept and thereby facilitate what looks more and more like a particularly perverse programme of cleansing in the Middle East, religious cleansing,” said the French president.
An attack on a Coptic church in the Egyptian city of Alexandria on January 1 killed 21 people. While noon has claimed responsibility, it followed online threats against Copts from an al-Qaeda-linked group which had said it was behind an attack on a church in Baghdad in October.
Some 68 people died in the attack on a Syriac Catholic church, one of a number of strikes against Christians in Iraq.
Those who died in Alexandria and Bagdad were “collectively our martyrs”, said Mr Sarkozy. “They are the martyrs of the freedom of conscience.” “The rights that are guaranteed in our country to all religions must be reciprocally guaranteed in other countries,” he said.
Police in France and other European countries including Britain have bolstered security at Coptic churches in the run-up to Christmas. French security sources launched a terror investigation this week after a priest received online threats against his Coptic church in France.
“The threats that targeted the Coptic churches in France are unacceptable and I have asked the government to take them very seriously,” Mr Sarkozy said.
“The Muslim community in France is horrified by these crimes committed in the name of Islam,” he said. “Fundamentalist terrorism also kills Muslims.”
Mr Sarkozy also defended the concept of freedom of religion, a sensitive subject in staunchly secular France, which last year enacted a law banning wearing face-covering veils, including the full Islamic garment, in public.
“A secular republic keeps constant dialogue with religions to be able to hear them and sometimes, why not, listen to them”. But he added: “(France) will never let any religion impose its law”.
The Conference of Faith Leaders in France, a multi-faith group, issued a statement yesterday saying: “This violence committed ‘in the name of God’ against other believers not only wounds a religion but all humanity.”
Mr Sarkozy then apparently responded to recent controversial comments by Marine Le Pen of the far-Right National Front, who likened Muslims praying in French streets outside mosques to the Nazi occupation. “(France) cannot accept that religion takes over public space without authorisation,” he said. “But that clearly implies that the republic also must keep its promise to allow everyone to have a decent place to pray.”
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