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Crowds gathered across France on Sunday to pay tribute to Samuel Pati, a 47-year-old history teacher who was beheaded after he reportedly showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a civil class lesson.
Rallies formed in cities including Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Marseille and Bordeaux. Thousands gathered in Place de la République in Paris, which, according to the Huffington Post France, was sometimes filled with applause, the French national anthem and a solemn moment of silence.
Demonstrators across the country carried plaques reading “I am Samuel” and “I am a teacher,” according to the BBC.
France has denied a killing that took place in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Saint-Honorine on Friday.
According to police, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee attacked Pati near the school and cut his throat before posting a graphic statement of responsibility on social media. Police fatally shot the perpetrator after he threatened and did not respond to disarmament orders, authorities said.
Shortly afterwards, President Emmanuel Macron described it as an “Islamist attack” and said the teacher had been targeted for “teaching freedom of speech.”
Jean-François Ricard, the French anti-terrorism prosecutor, said that Pati was threatened with death after he allegedly showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a free speech class.
The Muslim faith forbids the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. The BBC reported that Pati advised Muslim students in the classroom to look away if they expected to be offended.
Pati’s lesson provoked several angry reactions when one of the parents accused Pati of showing a picture of the prophet naked, the BBC reports. This father filed a formal complaint and called on people to protest at the school.
The lesson was related to the ongoing trial of the 2015 attack on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, who came under fire for his caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Islamist extremists have killed 12 people and accused 14 of providing weapons of logistical support.
And late last month, after the trial began, two people were injured in an attack near the magazine’s former offices, which authorities were investigating as a possible terrorist act.
Ricardo’s office said on Friday that an investigation into the terror had been opened and authorities had arrested nine suspects, including several members of the attacker’s family. According to Reuters, the number of detainees rose to 11 on Sunday.
French political and religious leaders have expressed outrage at the assassination and called for solidarity.
French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanker stressed on Saturday the need for unity in the educational community and in general, urging the French to show pride in their values of freedom, equality and fraternity.
“Secularism is key, it allows us to disagree, believe it or not, and respect each other,” Blanker said. “And today it is clear to everyone that this is what was attacked.”
Marlene Schiappa, France’s junior minister for citizenship, condemned the attack in a series of tweets and said she would attend Sunday’s demonstration “in support of teachers, secularism, freedom of speech and against Islamism”.
Many of those present were teachers themselves, according to France 24, and said they were shocked and upset by the murder.
“As a kindergarten teacher, I came here to defend my mission of education, to improve the critical thinking skills of my students,” said one of them. “It makes me want to teach even more. It will be before and after this horrible event.”
Another protester told the network that people had gathered “just to be together.”
French Prime Minister Jean Castex and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo were among thousands of protesters in Paris on Sunday. Both shared messages about strength and support on social media.
“You will not divide us,” Castex tweeted alongside a video of crowds singing the national anthem. “We are France!”
Outrage and sympathy also spilled out of the country.
The secretary general of the 57-member Islamic Cooperation Organization condemned Sunday’s attack, reiterating that it rejects “all forms of extremism, radicalization and terrorism for any reason or motive.”
And during a campaign rally in Wisconsin on Saturday night, President Trump expressed condolences to Macron for what he called a “malicious, brutal Islamic terrorist attack.”
Reuters reports that a national tribute to Patti will be held in France on Wednesday.