(AFP) – Apr 6, 2008
ABLAIN-SAINT-NAZAIRE, France (AFP) — Vandals desecrated 148 Muslim graves in France's biggest war cemetery, hanging a pig's head from one tombstone and daubing slogans insulting France's Muslim justice minister, officials said Sunday.
President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed "profound outrage" at the "sordid" attack on the Muslim quarter of the Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery, near the northern town of Arras on Saturday night. He vowed that those responsible would be punished.
The cemetery is France's biggest military graveyards and commemorates tens of thousands of victims of a series of long and bloody battles for control of northern France at the start of World War I.
The attack came almost exactly a year after a similar incident in which neo-Nazi vandals scrawled swastikas on 52 of the cemetery's Muslim graves.
"This is the most inadmissible kind of racism and the president of the republic shares the pain of France's entire Muslim community," said a statement issued by the presidency. France's Muslim community is Europe's largest at around five million.
"This hateful act is also a attack on the memory of all veterans of World War I, beyond the faith of each one," the statement added.
The state prosecutor for Arras, Jean-Pierre Valensi, said "the slogans directly target Islam and they gravely insult Rachida Dati, the justice minister," who is the daughter of north African immigrants.
He said a pig's head was hung from one of the graves.
Dati issued a statement condemning a "hateful act" that "hurts the memory of our dead, of the veterans who gave their lives for France".
"Through its racist connotations, it is an assault on the values of the republic and an insult to all French people."
Muslim community leaders were allowed to visit the scene on Sunday. "This is shameful to see," said the regional head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, Bahssine Saaidi.
"We need to work together... to stop this problem of racism," he added.
"These are probably the tombs of heroes who fell in combat. This is a hateful, scandalous act, an insult to all Muslims," Dalil Boubaker, rector of the Paris mosque, told France Info radio.
The MRAP anti-racism group said the attack was "a worrying sign of an ill that is gaining ground with a degree of impunity: islamophobia" and warned that France needed to face up to the problem.
SOS Racism said it was taking legal action to demand the dismantling of the neo-Nazi group behind the April 2007 attack on the cemetery.
Two youths aged 18 and 21, both members of the group, were jailed for a year over that attack. A 16-year-old also received a six-week prison sentence.
The Elysee said Sarkozy had called for a swift inquiry and "for those responsible for this act to be punished as they deserve."
Around 100 French gendarmes were at the site to gather evidence. Jean-Marie Bockel, the secretary of state for veteran's affairs, said the government would review security at Notre Dame de Lorette.
"This is horrific, and for the 90th anniversary of the end of the 1914-1918 war. This is worse than the last time, it is abominable," said Jean-Paul Doue, one of 3,800 volonteer honorary guards at the cemetery.
Inaugurated in 1925, the Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery houses the remains of some 40,000 soldiers, half of them in named graves. The Muslim quarter includes 576 tombs, grouped together and turned towards Mecca.
Prior to 2007, there were four incidents involving the desecration of Muslim graves in northern and eastern France in 2004, and one in 2003.
There have also been several attacks on Jewish graves in cemeteries across France in recent years.
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