Around 7,000 people marched through Brussels against jihadist violence on Sunday, nearly a month after coordinated suicide attacks in the Belgian capital killed 32 people and wounded hundreds of others.
Organised by civil society groups, the so-called “march against terror and hatred” was aimed at putting on a show of unity after the bloodshed.
But turnout was less than half of the 15,000 people they had hoped for.
Around 6,000 people set off from the Gare du Nord railway station and joined up in the city centre with around 1,000 marchers who had started from Molenbeek, the rundown district that has gained an unwelcome reputation as a jihadi haven.
Many clutched flowers and emblems of peace.
“When our fellow citizens, defenceless civilians, are cut down in a cowardly attack, all citizens should stand up to express their disgust and solidarity,” said Hassan Bousetta, a local councillor from the city of Liege, who helped organise the march.
“It is a moment of reflection, a message of compassion for the victims and a moment when citizens come together,” he told AFP.
Carrying a banner in French and Flemish reading “#alltogether against hatred and terror,” the main group of marchers was led by families of the victims, followed by representatives from various religious communities.
A dozen members of an association for inter-religious dialogue carried a banner with drawings of doves emblazoned with: “Together in peace” while a Muslim group carried a placard reading: “Love is my religion and my faith.”
In the group that set off from Molenbeek, children chanted, “Daesh, off you go, Brussels isn’t for you!” using an acronym for the Islamic State jihadist group, which claimed the attacks.
Thirty-two people were killed in the March 22 bomb attacks, which targeted Zaventem airport and a subway train at Maalbeek station, near the European Union (EU) institutions in central Brussels.
At the ceremony, the names of the dead were read out before relatives of the dead and witnesses took turns to speak.
– ‘Islam of love’ –
“Our Islam is based on the love of God and love for each other, regardless of one’s culture, origin, religion,” said a message from the widower of Loubna Lafquiri, a Belgian-Moroccan mother of three who was killed in the metro blast.
In a poignant address to his wife, he wrote: “My princess, my treasure, my eternal love, I say to you that we will meet again soon.”
The bloodshed tore at Belgium’s social fabric, already weakened along linguistic lines between francophones and Dutch-speaking Flemings, and stirred anguished debate about the emergence of jihadists among the country’s Muslim underclass.
On Saturday, Interior Minister Jan Jambon — a Flemish nationalist who has been criticised for his handling of security — said a “significant section of the Muslim population danced” when the attacks took place.
He also accused Muslim residents of Molenbeek of throwing stones and bottles at police during an operation last month to arrest a suspect in connection with November’s attacks in Paris.
“This is the real problem. Terrorists we can pick up, remove from society. But they are just a boil. Underneath is a cancer that is much more difficult to treat. We can do it, but it won’t be overnight,” he said.
His comments drew fire on Sunday.
“It is abysmal to exploit events in order to sow division,” said Pieter Bouchery, a union official with telephone operator Mobistar.
“To say that Molenbeek is a jihadists’ paradise is stupid and not right for the people who live there.”
Several Socialist MPs have called on Prime Minister Charles Michel to condemn Jambon’s remarks, media reports said.
The march, which involved 160 associations, was initially to have taken place on March 27 but was postponed after the authorities raised security concerns.