French leaders including President Jacques Chirac gathered at the main Paris synagogue on Thursday evening to pay tribute to Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man tortured to death in a suspected anti-Semitic crime that has shocked the entire country.
The memorial ceremony marked the end of the shiva, the seven-day Jewish mourning period.
Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders stood together alongside Prime
Minister Dominique de Villepin and other top ministers and political parties leaders among a crowd of around 1,500 people packing the synagogue on Rue de la Victoire in the city’s 9th district. Hundreds of people, Jews and non-Jews, had to remain outside.
Villepin stressed the feeling of “emotion” and “meditation” in the synagogue. “It is the national solidarity which is expressed here,” he said.
"The Jewish community is in mourning, the Republic is in mourning, France is in mourning," said Joel Mergui, the head of Paris’ Jewish Consistoire, the umbrella institution of religious associations.
He recalled Ilan’s pain during his agony and said that Halimi has been "killed by barbarians in the France of 2006". “I am angry in the face of indifference of the neighborhood which didn’t react by cowardice and conviction,” he added.
Chirac, who was accompanied by his wife Bernadette, spoke at length with Ilan Halimi’s mother Ruth and sisters Anne-Laure and Yael, whom he promised earlier this week that "those responsible for this act of barbarity (would be) traced, caught and punished."
“From now on, there is a before and an after Ilan,” France’s chief rabbi Joseph Sitruk told the crowd in the synagogue. “I am addressing to all French citizens to ask them today to stand up as one man and cry : it’s enough, no France didn’t loose its soul. It must remain the country of enlightenment as it has always been.”
Sitruk asked Jews to be "serenee because, he said, "they are an everlasting component of France."
He stressed the exceptional character of the presence of both President Chirac and Prime minister de Villepin.
Paris chief rabbi David Messas reminded that Ilan means "tree" in Hebrew. "Others uprooted the tree and sowed hatred, horror and terror," he said
Several anti-racist organisations have called Jews and non-Jews for a large silent demonstration next Sunday through the centre of Paris.
It is likely to be the largest ever demonstration since May 1990 when more than 200,000 people marched through the streets of Paris to denounce the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Carpentras, southern France, and express the need to fight against racism and anti-Semitism.
As an unprecedented gesture, then President Francois Mitterrand joined the march as well as his Prime minister Michel Rocard.
Homage in Brussels
Some 350 people marched silently Thursday evening through Bagneux, the poor multi-ethnic Paris suburb where Halimi was held and tortured, carrying banners denouncing racism and anti-Semitism.
In Brussels, responding to a call by the Belgian Union of Jewish students, some 600 people, including two ministers and several MP's, gathered at the main synagogue, to pay tribute to Ilan Halimi. After kaddish, the mourners prayer, was recited, the crowd marched silently to the nearby Law courts were candles were lighted.
Fofana to be flown shortly
The gang-leader accused of masterminding Ilan Halimi’s kidnapping and murder, Youssef Fofana, 25, was arrested overnight in Ivory Coast where he had fled after the killing, and was expected shortly to be flown back to France.
A 23-year-old mobile phone shop assistant, Halimi went missing in late January after being lured into a trap by a woman and was held prisoner for three weeks by a gang that sent ransom demands to his family.
Ten days ago he was dumped beside a railway line just south of Paris city centre. Naked, bound and gagged, his body bore horrific burns and injuries and he died on the way to hospital.
The crime struck horror in France’s 600,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in Europe, where it was widely assumed Halimi had been targeted because he was Jewish.
After initial reluctance, the French authorities earlier this week said they too believe anti-Semitism was part of the gang’s motives. On Tuesday the investigating magistrate heading the case opened the way for aggravated charges of racial hatred against gang members.
Ivorian police told AFP that Fofana -- a convicted petty criminal of
Ivorian origin -- had admitted taking part in Halimi’s kidnap and murder. But they said that "he denies any anti-Semitic dimension" to the crime.
Meanwhile Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said Fofana would be extradited without delay.
"It is a given that (Fofana) will be brought back to France, it is a question of days or hours," Sarkozy told reporters.
Fofana was arrested along with four others, at a roadblock in a popular Abidjan neighbourhood, following a police tip-off.
According to an Ivorian officier, he confessed to having killed Halimi and sprayed his body with acid to clear it of fingerprints.
However, according to a French judicial source, Fofana confessed his part in Halimi’s kidnapping but not his murder.
By Thursday, a total of 13 people had been placed under judicial investigation in Paris, the latest being the concierge of the building in which Halimi was held.
Investigators believe the gang had made several failed attempts to extort money. According to Sarkozy, four out of six previous targets were Jewish, who were chosen because of the belief that "Jews have money".
Press commentators Thursday universally described the identification of Jews with money as an insidious and classic form of anti-Semitism.
"Hatred of Jews has left the category of the unacceptable to become something normal -- especially in the eyes of many young people," said the left-wing newspaper Liberation.
“It appears today that for some of the members of the “gang of barbarians” anti-Semitism was an evidence,” writes the daily Le Monde.