(CNN) — Dignitaries and world leaders joined hundreds of thousands of people in Paris on Sunday in what government officials called a “unity rally” in defiance of a terrorism rampage that claimed 17 lives.
French President Francois Hollande was joined by other heads of state and dignitaries — several who linked arms.
At the very front of the march was Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris and president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith.
Though the march began at 3 p.m., the peaceful crowd swelled in size as night fell. One man in the crowd said the French people must not “give in to fear.” Terrorists, he said, “will not win.”
Others carried signs that echoed the now-famous phrase that honored slain journalists at the magazine Charlie Hebdo, “Je suis Charlie.”
“We are all cops.”
“We are all Muslims.”
“We are all French.”
While demonstrators showed the resolve of French citizens, the nation’s law enforcement officers were being told to remove their social media presence and carry their weapons at all times, because terror sleeper cells had been activated over the last 24 hours in the country, a French police source who attended a briefing Saturday told CNN terror analyst Samuel Laurent.
Amedy Coulibaly, a suspect killed Friday during a deadly hostage siege at a kosher market, had made several phone calls about targeting police officers in France, according to the source.
While law enforcement worked to track down anyone who wants to harm the people of France, the sea of demonstrators broke into song, held hands, cheered and passionately denounced violence.
An imam and a number of Muslims were in the crowd. A young Muslim French woman held a sign that said, “I am a Jew.” She told CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen that she was horrified to hear of the killings, and the killers do not live according to the Islamic principles she’s been taught.
“Our religion is the religion of love. … Our religion loves Jews … loves Christians. We are not terrorists,” one Muslim man said, his voice rising.
He lifted his arm and gestured to many people around him who came to denounce violence: “We are all Muslim!”
French officials announced “exceptional measures” to protect not only the throngs gathered near the Place de la Republique in central Paris, and a who’s who of foreign leaders at the rally — a test of the security forces of a nation rocked by days of terrorist violence.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has outlined extraordinary security measures to protect VIPs such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
At many moments, the gathering looked like a funeral. Merkel was photographed leaning her head gently on Hollande’s shoulder.
Hollande was expected to travel to the Synagogue de la Victoire to show support for France’s Jews.
Other leaders included Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Queen Rania.
In a notable gesture of unity, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both attended the rally.
Several people in the crowd and on social media wondered why U.S. President Barack Obama was not at the rally; he’s at the White House Sunday.
CNN has asked for an explanation from the State Department and White House of his absence at the rally. There has been no response so far.
Secretary of State John Kerry was not there either.
A senior State Department official told CNN that Kerry had committed a long time ago to be the lead speaker at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s entrepreneurship and innovation summit in India. The official said that Kerry did not want to cancel that as he continues to wok on the United States’ relationship with the nation.
Ambassador to France Jane Hartley represented the United States at the rally.
Cazeneuve and other officials said 2,300 police officers, as well as paramilitary forces, would be deployed Sunday. The dignitaries and leaders will be protected by special units.
In addition, police snipers, plainclothes and anti-terror officers will be deployed and parking and transit restrictions will be put in place. The government will close large sections of the city to traffic, Cazeneuve said.
French investigators are still trying to piece together the web of connections between three terror suspects killed Friday and their suspected links to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other terrorist groups. Security will remain heightened as the investigations continue, officials have said.
The country continues to cope with three days of terror that left 17 people dead; thousands gathered on the streets for vigils Saturday.
The precautions may help to ease the nerves of a country left on edge by the wave of violence.
The targeting of a kosher grocery store has shaken Jewish communities in particular. Amid the heightened security concerns, the Grande Synagogue of Paris was closed Saturday for the first time since World War II.
Brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, authors of Wednesday’s deadly attack on the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, were killed Friday after the two violent standoffs. The brothers are suspected of killing 12 people in a massacre at the magazine offices.
Coulibaly, suspected in the slaying of a police officer, was killed by security forces Friday after he shot and killed four hostages during the siege at the kosher market.
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