As French police surround a suspect in a string of shootings in southern France, Jews and Muslims are grappling with the horrific events that have touched their communities.
Children spill out of the Beth Hanna Jewish school in northeastern Paris under a spring sun and the watchful eyes of armed police. Parents, including men sporting the trademark black hat of Hasidic Jews, crowd the sidewalk to greet them. Lea Chicheportiche, a mother of five, is also here.
Like many, Chicheportiche's thoughts are fixed hundreds of kilometers away - on the southern French city of Toulouse, where a motorcycle gunman killed three children and a rabbi at another Jewish school. Police believe the killer is also responsible for the shooting deaths of three French soldiers last week, including two Muslims.
Chicheportiche says the events are distressing. She believes the killer is racist because he shot dead both Muslims and Jews. She spoke hours before police closed in on a suspect, a 24-year-old man who claims links to al-Qaida and had been training in southern Afghanistan. French authorities say he wanted to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children in the Middle East.
The killings have shaken the nation. The French government has notched up the terrorism alert in the Toulouse region to its highest level. French President Nicolas Sarkozy briefly suspended his presidential campaign, as did several of his challengers. Security has been reinforced around religious institutions and schools like Beth Hanna.
Both the soldiers and the Jewish victims were buried Wednesday, in separate ceremonies in France and Israel. Sarkozy also met with representatives of France's Muslim and Jewish communities, the largest in Western Europe.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Sarkozy said the nation must be united, it cannot cede to violence or stereotyping. He said France cannot confront such an event unless the nation is united - it owes it to the victims.
Like elsewhere across France, people in this Paris neighborhood are grappling to understand the horrific killings.
Rabbi Mendel Azimov helps oversee Beth Hanna school, which his father founded. Eight of his children go to the establishment, which runs from nursery through high school. He knows the families of the Toulouse victims.
"It's not only a community problem, it's not only a religious problem, it's a national problem - and even… an international problem," he said. "Every family, the kids, the population is very shocked about it. And we hope that justice will be done like the president [Sarkozy] promised."
The shootings have cast a cloud over an election season already checkered by sharp exchanges on immigration and religion - notably controversy over Jewish and Muslim ritual animal slaughtering practices. Some believe the horrific events will draw the two communities closer.
But Victor Levy, who owns an office supply store a block from Beth Hanna, is not so sure.
Levy does not believe the shootings will help to unite French Muslims and Jews. He says it only increases doubts between the two communities, because each wonders if the other is racist. He says each can speak words that shock and create hatred between the two religions.
Muslims and Jews have long been neighbors in this colorful, slightly grimy slice of Paris known as the 19th arrondissement. Halal butchers and kebab takeouts vie for customers alongside Kosher supermarkets and traditional French bakeries.
Many Muslims and Jews here hail from the same region - North Africa. But there have been longstanding tensions over the years, often reflecting events in the far-off Middle East. Muslim youths in the neighborhood occasionally clash with their Jewish counterparts.
Store owner Levy says that despite tensions, the two communities do get along. He is Jewish. A good friend is an Iraqi Muslim. But he fears the events in Toulouse might inflame things.
But across the street, Muslim laundry store-owner Biguejda Driss mourns the Jewish deaths in Toulouse.
Driss, who is of Moroccan origin, says it is not normal that someone should kill children.
At Beth Hanna, Rabbi Azimov is focusing on healing.
"We have a special tradition that says that when bad things happen, you have to add on kindness and goodness and prayer," he said, "we have a belief that when you have light, darkness disappears."
Muslim and Jewish leaders are organizing a remembrance march for the Toulouse victims in Paris on Sunday. They say the march makes no sense unless it is done jointly.
Source: VOA News