Christians, Muslims mourn murdered French priest

Sister Danielle, a nun who managed to escape the hostage situation and alert police, attends a tribute mass to murdered priest Jacques Hamel on July 30, 2016 in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.
Sister Danielle, a nun who managed to escape the hostage situation and alert police, attends a tribute mass to murdered priest Jacques Hamel on July 30, 2016 in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Muslim and Christian groups came together Saturday (July 30) to mourn a French priest murdered by Islamic militants, as authorities charged a man in connection with the brutal church attack that rocked the nation.

A shellshocked France is still coming to terms with the militant killing of the clergyman at the altar in his church, sparking fears of tensions between religions in the secular nation.

In a bid to forge togetherness between the communities, a “brotherhood march” was held in the southeastern city of Lyon, supported by a regional Muslim council and a Catholic group.

Hundreds of people marched in silence, as mourners at the front of the crowd carried banners that read: “This is not a religious war” and “We are all brothers and sisters.”

“We think it is crucial to leave no room for resignation, resentment or fear, and to take a stand for togetherness,” Abdelkader Bendidi, who heads the regional Muslim council, said in a statement.

“Let’s not give the agents of terror a second victory by giving in to hate,” said Azzedine Gaci, a local imam.

“It doesn’t matter what our religious beliefs are, or if we have none at all. These attacks won’t divide us. Instead, they will unite us around one idea: reconciliation,” said Foucauld Giuliani, of a Catholic group.

In the southwestern city of Bordeaux, some 400 people attended a vigil for the 85-year-old Jacques Hamel, who had his throat slit by Islamic State-inspired teenage attackers.

Prayers were also held in the Saint-Etienne church where the killing took place as Hamel was celebrating mass on Tuesday.

Among the 300 people who attended the evening mass in northern Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, some 50 were Muslims.

Police were still trying to piece together links to the two 19-year-olds who carried out the attack – Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean – both of whom were on intelligence services’ radar and had tried to go to Syria.

On Friday, authorities filed charges against a 19-year-old man accused of  “criminal conspiracy with terrorists” after police discovered a mobile phone video of one of the assailants at his home.

Police were still questioning Petitjean’s cousin and a Syrian refugee, after a photocopy of his passport was found at Kermiche’s house.

A 16-year-old was released but could ultimately face a separate investigation for possessing militant propaganda, authorities added.

A source close to the enquiry said that a 17-year-old, who had tried to travel to Syria with Kermiche, was arrested in Geneva and sent back to France just a few days before the attack.

However, “nothing suggests he was in any way implicated in the attack” at this stage, the source added.

Both French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve have come under fire for perceived security failings.

Valls has said he would consider a temporary ban on foreign financing of mosques, urging a “new model” for relations with Islam after a spate of militant attacks.

France has just over 2,000 mosques, for one of Europe’s largest Muslim populations of around five million.

Since the assault, harrowing details have emerged about what happened in the church as well as a chilling warning from one of the attackers.

On Friday, L’Express magazine revealed that Kermiche had described the modus operandi of the attack on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.

“You take a knife, you go into a church. Bam!” says the message recorded just a few days before the attack.

Meanwhile, two elderly nuns who were in the church at the time of the attack told AFP the assailants “smiled” and spoke about peace.

Sister Helena said when asked if she was familiar with Islam’s holy book, she said she had read several suras especially those about peace.

According to the nun, one of the attackers replied: “Peace, it’s what we want... as long as there are bombs on Syria, we will continue our attacks. And they will happen every day. When you stop, we will stop.”