Terrorism in France
Priest brutally murdered in church, hostages used as human shields
FRANCE — The Islamic State group crossed a new threshold Tuesday in its war against the West: Two of its followers attacked a church in Normandy, slitting the throat of an elderly priest celebrating mass and using hostages as human shields before being shot by police.
It was the extremist group’s first attack against a church in the West, and fulfils long-standing threats against “crusaders” in what the militants paint as a centuries-old battle for power.
One of the attackers, who grew up in the town, had tried twice to leave for Syria; the second was not identified.
“To attack a church, to kill a priest, is to profane the republic,” French President François Hollande told the nation after speaking with Pope Francis, who condemned the killing in the strongest terms.
Rev. Jacques Hamel was celebrating mass for three nuns and two parishioners on a quiet summer morning in Saint-Étienne-duRouvray when the attackers burst in and forced the 85-year-old priest to his knees before slicing his throat, according to authorities and a nun who escaped.
She described seeing the attackers film themselves and give a sermon in Arabic around the altar before she fled.
Paris prosecutor François Molins said the other hostages were used as human shields to block police from entering. One elderly parishioner was wounded.
The two attackers were killed by police as they rushed from the building shouting “Allahu akbar,” Molins said.
One had three knives and a fake explosives belt. The other carried a kitchen timer wrapped in aluminum foil and had fake explosives in his backpack.
One of the assailants was identified as Adel Kermiche, a 19-year-old who tried to travel to Syria twice last year using family members’ identity documents, but was arrested outside France and handed preliminary terrorism charges. Kermiche had an electronic surveillance bracelet after a judge overruled prosecutors and agreed to free him, Molins said.
A statement published by the ISaffiliated Amaq news agency said Tuesday’s attack was carried out by “two soldiers of the Islamic State” who acted in response to calls to target nations in the U.S.-led coalition fighting the extremist group in Iraq and Syria.
Haras Rafiq, managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, described the attack as a turning point. “What these two people today have done is ... shifted the tactical attack to the attack on Rome ... an attack on Christianity,” he said.
He warned that it could “radicalize people from both sides of the communities. Muslim and non-Muslim.”
As Europe becomes painfully inured to a summer of repeated bloodshed, the extremists are looking for greater ways to shock, Rafiq said. “This is going into a house of God. This is attacking and killing a priest.”
“We’ve been talking about the danger of the global jihadist insurgency. This is what it looks like,” he said.
The increasing speed with which IS has claimed responsibility and the growing number of attacks this summer have left Europe alarmed and fearful.
Targeting a church in the rural Normandy heartland resonated with France’s leadership and Christians across Europe.
While France is officially secular and church attendance is low, the country has deep Catholic roots.
Islamic State extremists have urged followers to attack French churches and the group is believed to have planned at least one earlier church attack that was foiled when the assailant shot himself in the leg.
The slain priest had been at the church for the past decade and “was always ready to help,” said Rouen diocese official Philippe Maheut.
“His desire was to spread a message for which he consecrated his life,” Maheut said. “And he certainly didn’t think that consecrating his life would mean for him to die while celebrating mass, which is a message of love.”
A nun who escaped said the priest was forced to the ground before his throat was slit. “They forced him to his knees. He wanted to defend himself.”
Police officers stand guard at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray’s city hall on Tuesday, after an attack that left a priest dead.
Jacques Hamel: Priest was killed at mass.