Church attack in France kills priest, Islamic State is blamed

Two men stormed a parish church in northern France on Tuesday and took several hostages, fatally sta
Responders work at the scene of a hostage incident in Saint Etienne du Rouvray on July 26, 2016 near Rouen, France.
Responders work at the scene of a hostage incident in Saint Etienne du Rouvray on July 26, 2016 near Rouen, France.

ST.-ÉTIENNE-DU-ROUVRAY, France — Two men stormed a parish church in northern France on Tuesday and took several hostages, fatally stabbing an 85-year-old priest and critically injuring another person, before the attackers were shot dead by police, officials said.

President François Hollande of France said that the Islamic State was behind the attack, the latest in a series of assaults that have left Europe stunned, fearful and angry.

“We are facing a group, Daesh, that has declared war on us,” Hollande said, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State. “We must realize that the terrorists will not give up until we stop them. It is our will. The French must know that they are threatened, that we are not the only country — Germany is, as well as others — and that their strength lies in their unity.”

He spoke after traveling with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve to St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray, the town in Normandy where the attack occurred, after meeting with the priest’s family and with the town’s mayor, Hubert Wulfranc.

The Rev. Jacques Hamel, the church’s auxiliary priest, was stabbed to death around 9:45 a.m., either as or just after Mass was celebrated, according to officials in the town. Two nuns and three worshippers were held hostage. Two people were injured, one of them severely.

The attackers entered the church wielding knives, according to people in the town. “They jumped on him while he was celebrating Mass,” said the Rev. Alexandre Joly, a priest from a nearby parish, who described Hamel as “very kind” and “someone whom no one could hate.” Joly added: “It’s an astonishingly strong symbol. It’s the moment when the priest is giving this act of love, that he is killed. It’s incomprehensible. They jumped on him with their knives.”

As the crisis unfolded, the National Police urged residents via Twitter to keep away from the scene and not enter a security perimeter that had been established around the church.

The Rouen unit of the BRI, a police team that specializes in major crimes like armed robberies and kidnappings, “arrived extremely quickly and positioned itself around the church,” an Interior Ministry spokesman, Pierre-Henry Brandet, told reporters in Paris.

The two hostage-takers left the church and were shot by the police, Brandet said.A police bomb squad searched the church to make sure it had not been booby-trapped with explosive devices. One man was arrested near the church and held for questioning.

St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a suburb of the ancient city of Rouen, is about 65 miles northwest of Paris and has about 29,000 inhabitants. Townspeople said it was a peaceful community with a number of residents of immigrant ancestry.

At the Vatican, a spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that Pope Francis was horrified at the “barbaric killing” of a priest and issued “the most severe condemnation of all forms of hatred.”

The pope is scheduled to travel to Krakow, Poland, this week to attend the World Youth Day celebration. In a statement from Krakow, Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen said that he would return home immediately and that his vicar general, or principal deputy, the Rev. Philippe Maheut, was on site to provide comfort to parishioners. The parish priest, the Rev. Auguste Moanda-Phuati, said by telephone that he, too, was racing back to the church from a vacation near Paris.

Lebrun made an appeal for peace. “The Catholic Church has only prayer and brotherhood among men as its weapons,” he said. “I leave here hundreds of young people who are truly the future of humanity. I ask them not to give in to the violence, and to become apostles of the civilization of love.”

The attack drew statements of condemnation from across French society. Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, called the attack “barbaric and criminal” and declared that “Muslims stand together behind the government to defend France and its institutions.” The Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions said that the attack “marks a new stage in the spread of terrorism in France” and that “the authorities and the population must now quickly adapt to this new emergency.”

France has had three major terrorist attacks in the space of 19 months: an assault on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and other locations around Paris in January 2015, which killed 17 people; coordinated attacks on a soccer stadium, the Bataclan concert hall, and cafes and restaurants in and around Paris on Nov. 13, which killed 130 people; and a rampage on July 14 in the southern city of Nice by a man who rammed a cargo truck into a Bastille Day crowd and shot at the police with a handgun, killing 84 people.

The country has been concerned about the threat against churches for some time. In April 2015, authorities arrested Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a 24-year-old Algerian computer science student. He had amassed a trove of weapons in a Paris apartment, was thought to be planning an attack on at least one church and was suspected in the killing of a 32-year-old woman, Aurélie Châtelain, whose body was found in a parked car in Villejuif, a Paris suburb.

Ghlam had been ordered by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian militant who went on to help organize the November attacks on Paris, to open fire on a church in Villejuif, according to a report by French anti-terrorism police, but the attack was not carried out.

Since the Villejuif attack was foiled, many houses of worship in France, including mosques and synagogues, have been on a heightened state of alert. The country has roughly 45,000 Catholic churches, so protecting them is a very difficult task.

Hamel was born on Nov. 30, 1930, in Darnétal, a town about 5 miles from St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray, and celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination in 2008. Despite his age, “he preferred to remain and continue working,” Moanda-Phuati, the parish priest, told Agence France-Presse.

The church’s Tuesday Mass begins at 9 a.m. and lasts for about half an hour, Moanda-Phuati said in a phone interview. Because of the summer holidays, attendance would have been low — fewer than 10 people, he estimated.

The nave of the church, which has a slate roof, dates to the 16th century. A bell tower was added in the 17th century, and the choir was rebuilt in 1837. The church’s stained-glass windows were destroyed by German bombing in 1940.

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