The point of departure, the Champs Elysees in Paris, was symbolic: a policeman was murdered on the world-famous avenue in April in the name of political Islam.
A bus-load of imams are on a six-day tour of European cities hit by attacks in recent years to denounce terrorism, including Brussels, Nice, Toulouse and London.
After leaving Paris on Saturday, they arrived on Sunday in Berlin. They are due to travel on to Brussels on Monday.
Those behind the initiative – “Muslims march against terrorism” – believe they have to do more to defend their religion. It’s not enough simply to state that Islam represents peace, they argue, they have to take to the road to spread their message.
“It’s symbolic. These people are religious, brave and have faith. They’re Muslims who say ‘No’ to barbarity, ‘No’ to hate, ‘No’ to terror. That’s a strong symbol, that’s the message we need to send,” said co-organiser Hassen Chalghoumi, formerly the imam at a mosque at Drancy in the Paris suburbs.
In Berlin, the imams were due to visit the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, near the scene of the atrocity last December when a driver rammed into people at a Christmas market, killing six people and wounding dozens more.
The group includes six imams from Germany. Along the tour they intend to pray for the victims of terrorism and show that Islam can exist alongside other religions and cultures.
Alongside Chalghoumi is Marek Halter, a French Jewish writer of Polish origin who
campaigns for dialogue between religions.
“I think that for non-Muslims it’ll be about discovery, the discovery of another Islam. And for Muslims, they’ll have an example, people to follow,” he said.
However the initiative does not have universal support. Chalghoumi is a controversial figure in some Muslim circles.
Three prominent French Muslim leaders have jointly condemned the tour. After meeting at the Grande Mosquée de Paris to address the problem of Islam’s negative image among many French people, representatives of several Muslim organisations issued a joint statement “denouncing all links between Islam and terrorism and affirming that the Muslim religion cannot conceal any form of violence”.
An article published on the Paris mosque’s website (in French) denounces activism and “self-flagellation”, singling out Chalghoumi and questioning the integrity of his financial backer.
“We condemn terrorist attacks very vigorously. We didn’t wait for Chalghoumi to denounce those who manipulate Islam for political and terrorist ends. We have multiplied initiatives and interreligious dialogue. Pope Francis congratulated us for our various actions,” said one of the representatives, Abdallah Zekri.
The “Muslims march against terrorism” is due to return to Paris for Bastille Day next Friday for the conclusion of the imams’ journey, where they will be joined by representatives of the Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox religions.