‘Unnameable’ Islamic State atrocity stirs fears of escalation
Right-wing figures pounce after priest’s throat is slashed in Normandy town
A ceremony at Lyon Cathedral in memory of Fr Jacques Hamel who was born in 1930, ordained in 1958 and celebrated his golden jubilee – 50 years of service – in 2008. Photograph: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images
Fr Jacques Hamel (86) was celebrating morning Mass when two men entered the grey stone church in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, in the southern suburbs of Rouen, through the back chapel. They slashed the elderly priest’s throat, then attacked a male parishioner, whose life is in danger, while two nuns and the man’s wife watched in horror.
“They were speaking in Arabic. I saw a knife. I left the moment they started attacking Fr Jacques. I don’t know if they realised I was leaving,” Sr Danièle Delafosse, the third nun, who raised the alarm, told Le Figaro newspaper.
The nun said the killers shouted “Da’esh”, the Arab acronym for Islamic State, as they burst into the church. After slashing the throats of Fr Jacques and the male parishioner, they filmed a claim of responsibility for the jihadist group.
Less than an hour later, at 10.30am, the killers ran out of the church and towards police, shouting “Allahu Akbar”. The Rapid Intervention Brigade (BRI) shot the two young men dead.
The commandos had arrived from Rouen within minutes. Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve recently restructured anti-terrorist forces to ensure that no place in France would be more than 20 minutes from help.
Hollande gave the first indications that the attack was planned by Islamic State, also known as Isis.
The initial communique from the Élysée condemned “the ignoble terrorist act”. Speaking in Saint-Étienne- du-Rouvray, Hollande referred to “two terrorists who claim to belong to Da’esh”.
At 1.30pm, the jihadist group claimed responsibility for the killing through its press agency, Aamaq. One of the dead assailants was identified as Adel Kermiche (19), from Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, the quiet, working-class town of 28,000 where the attack happened.
The killer had an extensive police record and twice tried to reach Syria. On an international watch list, he was arrested in Turkey and returned to France, where he served 10 months in prison before being released with an electronic bracelet.
Kermiche was under house arrest but was allowed to to go out every day from 8.30am- 12.30pm – the hours during which he attacked the church.
Fr Jacques was born in 1930, in the same Seine-Maritime department where he was murdered. He was ordained in 1958 and celebrated his golden jubilee – 50 years of service – in 2008.
The priest was known to virtually everyone in the community and was particularly fond of celebrating baptisms and weddings. He signed a note in the parish letter last month: “Let us hear the invitation of God to care for the world; to make the world we live in a warmer, more friendly, more human and fraternal place.”
Auguste Moanda-Phuati, the parish priest, learned of his colleague’s murder from television as he returned from holiday.
“He officiated in my absence,” Fr Auguste, who is from the Congo, told RTL radio. “He had the right to retire at age 75 but he still felt strong. He said there weren’t enough priests and he could be of service, so he’d continue working.”
The attack caught the French political class still reeling from the Bastille Day massacre in Nice.
“This abominable act is a new trial for the nation when we carry the mourning for the 84 victims of Nice, and Paris was hit so hard last year,” Hollande said in a televised declaration last night. “The Catholics of France and the Catholics of the world are wounded. All French, whatever their beliefs, feel attacked.”
Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls both stressed the need for unity, to “show cohesion, together, in a block that no one will be able to fissure”, the president said.
“They attack symbols,” Valls said. “Nice on the 14th of July. Today, a church, an elderly priest. They attack everything of meaning, the strength of our country, a part of the identity of our country, our roots.”
France’s right-wing opposition doubled down on accusations of government ineptitude. “Legal arguments, precautions and pretexts for inaction are not admissible,” said Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president and probable presidential candidate in next year’s election.
Though church and political leaders stressed the need for calm, the attack stirred underlying fears of escalation. Far left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon called on the country to “stand firm against the will to create a war of religion”.
Hervé Morin, the centrist president of the Normandy region where the attack took place, spoke of “the threat that all this could end badly, that is to say by inflaming French society, in a sort of civil war”.