France unites in grief for executed monks

Seven candles lit a month ago in Notre Dame cathedral to symbolise hope burn no more. On Thursday, that hope disappeared with the announcement that seven French monks, held captive by the Groupe Islamiste Armee (GIA) in Algeria since 27 March, had been executed.

In a solemn and impromptu ceremony, the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Lustiger, extinguished the candles one by one. "We pray ... for all of those who the monks did not want to leave," he told the shaken congregation. "Their death must be a sign of hope, that love remains stronger than hatred."

"It's unthinkable," said Brother Etienne of the Aiguebelle monastery, from which two of the victims came. "These people do not respect anything. They say that they can act in the name of God, but it is actually in the name of the Devil."

The seven Trappist monks, aged between 45 and 82, were abducted from the monastery of Tibhirine near Medea and kept hostage against demands for Islamic prisoners to be freed.

The communique which announced the assassination said they had been killed because the French government had "declared that they would not negotiate with the GIA".

The reaction in France was one of horror and indignation. President Jacques Chirac conveyed the "sadness and condolences of the nation," while the Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, said that "this crime will never be erased from our memories. And France's memory is long".

The murder provoked a strong reaction from the Muslim community in France. The rector of the Paris Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, said he was "stunned". "The death of these monks arouses reprobation in us," he asserted. "I join with all my heart in the suffering of their next of kin and of the French Church."

The French government called for all French nationals to leave Algeria. About 1,000 still live in the country. "I know that many men and women of the Church wish to pursue their ministry on the spot," said the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, "but their security can no longer be assured".

Armand Veilleur, the head of the French order of Trappist monks, believes the tragedy has helped to unite the different religious communities. "Over the past two months, this hostage crisis has already given a vitality to inter-religious dialogue like never before," he says. "Muslim groups have been praying and demanding the release of our monks."

A call has been made for the different French religious communities to demonstrate together against "fanaticism and terrorism".