- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

PARIS — A new law barring Islamic head scarves from schools goes into effect today with Frenchmen of all faiths surprisingly united in their horror at the kidnapping of two French journalists by Iraqi terrorists demanding that the law be reversed.

Demonstrations have been held across the country in a swell of solidarity unseen in previous hostage dramas. On Tuesday, Muslim leaders, from moderate to fundamentalist, gathered outside Paris’ main mosque to pray for the release of the journalists.

“We want to show our profound attachment to France, to our motherland, and to the two journalists who are our brothers,” said Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the mosque. “We want to do everything we can to save the hostages.”

A delegation of Muslim representatives left for Iraq yesterday to appeal for the release of the journalists, Christian Chesnot, 37, and Georges Malbrunot, 41. The group included leaders of the Union of Islamic Organizations — France’s most powerful Islamic group — and a young Muslim girl in a head scarf.

Apprehension over the fate of the journalists has been mounting, with no news coming from the kidnappers since the expiration of their latest deadline Tuesday night.

The kidnappers, identifying themselves as “the Islamic Army of Iraq,” had threatened on Saturday night to execute the two journalists unless France rescinded its head-scarf law within 48 hours. On Monday night, they reportedly extended the deadline for another 24 hours — although some sources said that it was for another 48 hours.

French authorities have vowed not to back down on the law, but have frantically been calling on Arab and Muslim religious leaders around the world to help save the journalists.

Mr. Chesnot, a freelance reporter for Radio France International, and Mr. Malbrunot, a veteran correspondent for Le Figaro newspaper, along with their Syrian driver, disappeared on Aug. 19 on their way from Baghdad to the southern city of Najaf.

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has been on a whirlwind tour of the Middle East appealing to regional leaders for help. The Islamic militant group Hamas, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are among those who have joined the call.

The newspaper Le Monde reported that a Middle East specialist who helped in the capture of terrorist Carlos the Jackal a decade ago also is in Iraq with a team of secret agents seeking contacts with the captors.

At home, France’s top government and political leaders have been meeting with the prime minister to discuss the crisis.

The seizure of the two men has come as a shock to this country, which opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and still refuses to send troops there. Even Muslim leaders are expressing consternation.

“The issue of the head scarf is an internal issue which concerns the French people. It does not require the service of outsiders, even in the name of Islam,” said Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the Union of French Islamic Organizations.

“The kidnappers are doing harm to Muslims in France and all over the world,” he added. “France has shown an exemplary stance against the war in Iraq. It should be considered a good friend to Arabs and Muslims; it should be thanked, not punished.”

The head of the French League of Muslim Women, Noura Jaballah, also condemned the kidnappings.

“All Muslims around the world are calling for the liberation of the hostages, including those of us women who oppose the head-scarf ban.

“We are being used as an excuse for the kidnappings. Therefore, we all feel like hostages,” she said.

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