The fearless gesture that proves there's far more to Islam than Isis
The solidarity of French Muslims in attending Catholic Mass finds echoes in our own recent past, says Henry McDonald
One of the most electrifying and heart-warming experiences at the European Football Championships in France back in June occurred in the 24th minute of the Republic of Ireland's opening game against Sweden. In that instant, the Stade de France exploded in applause and thousands of the Republic's fans chanted: "Stand up for the Ulsterman."
They were referring to Darren Rodgers, the young Ballymena man who died after falling off a 26ft wall in Nice before Northern Ireland's opening clash with Poland 24 hours earlier.
The hairs stood up on the back of this writer's neck inside Stade de France when the Boys in Green paid their tribute to the Northern Ireland supporter.
Amid the sea of green, white, yellow and blue, the fans of both national teams demonstrated solidarity with Darren's family, friends and fellow supporters.
Those 60 seconds of tribute and respect were all the more poignant given that the gesture took place in a stadium which had been the target of a great hatred eight months earlier.
Paris's hours of horror, which culminated in the slaughter at the Bataclan rock venue, a Parisian bistro and a Jewish supermarket, began with an attempt to blow up spectators at the Stade de France in a friendly match between the French and the Germans.
Indeed, on the way into the ground on that memorable Monday night, when Ireland drew with the Swedes 1-1, an old friend of mine from Belfast, who lives in Paris, pointed to the hoardings and the barriers around where the bomb had exploded back in November.
That moving moment of decency from the Republic fans came back to mind when reading about the Muslims who went to Catholic Masses in France and other countries in Europe at the weekend as part of their own individual acts of solidarity.
They did so to remember the Rev Jacques Hamel, who was slaughtered on the altar of his church by Isis-inspired maniacs in Normandy last week.
From Notre Dame in Paris to the gothic beauty of the cathedral in Rouen, hundreds of Muslims turned up to say not in our name and to denounce the murderers killing in the name of their religion.
This was a gesture which many people in Northern Ireland will be familiar with - especially given the risks that crossing the line with the hand of friendship can entail.
Let us not forget the good Christian authority of the Rev David Armstrong, who, in the 1980s, walked across the street from his then Presbyterian church in Limavady and into the local Catholic church, where, on Christmas Eve, he wished his fellow townsfolk the season's greetings. Yet, a section of his congregation objected to Armstrong's gesture and, eventually, he was hounded out of Limavady and, ultimately, switched his religious affiliation to the Church of Ireland.
His act of Christian love resulted in him becoming ostracised and demonised by some.
It is also worth recalling that certain elements in the Orange Order demanded that David Trimble be expelled from the institution after he dared attend a Catholic Mass and funerals for some of those massacred in the Omagh bomb when he was First Minister. The priest saying Mass in the Co Donegal church wished him well in his endeavours to bring the community together following the atrocity; some of his fellow Orangemen regarded his attendance as a bigger sin than the bomb.
The Muslims who attended Catholic Mass risk the same kind of opprobrium as Armstrong and Trimble ... if not worse. Many of those in France who turned up belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim minority sect, which differs from mainstream Islam in that it does not regard Muhammad as the final prophet.
In countries such as Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya suffer appalling persecution and the ever-present danger of death at the hands of the Taliban. Because of their tradition of religious toleration and reaching out to non-Muslims, the Ahmadiyya followers are regarded as traitors by the hardline fundamentalists.
Those who seek to tarnish every Muslim with the same fundamentalist brush should pay heed to that gesture of solidarity with French Catholics over the weekend.
Moreover, they need to be reminded, time and time again, that the overwhelming majority of victims of Isis and other Islamist terror groups in the Middle East are ordinary Muslims.
One of Isis's key goals is to supplant moderate Islamic clerics and leaders and pitch Muslims against Christians and Jews in an unholy war. Although the sad-sack creeps who killed an 85-year-old priest were hardly leading Isis strategists, the terrorist organisation's high command has been plotting to attack churches in France before and will do so again if they can execute their demented plans.
What France, Britain, Europe and America needs to do is not give Isis what they want: a religious war. Which means not electing dangerous clowns like Donald Trump in the USA this autumn, or Front National chief Marine Le Pen in France next year.
Allowing these politicians to hold presidential, executive power is exactly what Isis wants; to goad the United States, France, perhaps the entire EU itself, into a retreat towards extremism.
Among the French cities this writer visited back in June during the Euros was Nice, which extended a big hand of friendship to the Green and White Army.
And yet, a few weeks later, long after the supporters had gone home, hatred drove a religious fanatic to plough his van into dozens of people, murdering 85 men, women and children out celebrating Bastille Day on July 14. He cared little for whom he killed, whether they were from his own faith, or belonged to other belief systems, or none.
They were as dispensable to him as the Muslim French police officer shot down in the street by the Isis gang that murdered the journalists of Charlie Hebdo over a year before in Paris.
But, in the end, the Nice mass-murderer, or the cut-throats who think nothing of killing an 85-year-old gentle, devout soul like Pere Jacques Hamel, won't win.
And part of the reason their mad agenda will ultimately be defeated is that there is a core band of decent people out there from the Islamic faith who will stand with their fellow human beings and not let these beings triumph.