France lays to rest priest slain by terrorists

Mourners gathering near a giant screen outside the cathedral in Rouen, France, ahead of a funeral service in memory of slain priest Father Jacques Hamel, on Aug 2, 2016.
Mourners gathering near a giant screen outside the cathedral in Rouen, France, ahead of a funeral service in memory of slain priest Father Jacques Hamel, on Aug 2, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

ROUEN, FRANCE (AFP) - Thousands gathered at Rouen cathedral in northern France on Tuesday (Aug 2) for the funeral of Father Jacques Hamel, the 85-year-old priest who was murdered by two terrorists last week.

Some 2,000 mourners were expected to pack the soaring Gothic sanctuary, with hundreds more watching the ceremony on a giant screen outside.

A section of pews was set aside for residents of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, the nearby industrial town where the two terrorists, both 19, slit Hamel's throat while he was celebrating mass in an attack that shocked the country as well as the Catholic Church.

Along with churches across France, the 11th-century cathedral had on Sunday opened its doors to Muslims wishing to show their solidarity after the grisly attack, with the visitors paying a moving tribute to Hamel and denouncing radical Islam.

As on Sunday, security was tight, with police closely checking mourners' bags and backpacks.

The church attack came less than two weeks after another attacker ploughed a 19-tonne truck into a massive crowd celebrating Bastille Day in the Riviera city of Nice, killing 84 people and wounding more than 300 others.

As mourners gathered at the cathedral, Hamel's coffin stood before the altar, draped with a white cloth as is customary at the burial of a priest.

A stole, a priest's vestment resembling a narrow shawl that symbolises the passion of Christ, was draped over a giant cross.

"Father Hamel's death was similar to that of Christ, unjustly convicted and put to death," the diocese said.

Rouen Archbishop Dominique Lebrun will celebrate the mass, with Marseille Archbishop Georges Pontier, who heads the French Catholic Church, also attending.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, whose portfolio also includes inter-faith relations, is leading the political delegation to the mass.

Hamel is to be buried in a ceremony attended only by close family members, at a location that has not been revealed.

The frail octogenarian became the latest victim of terror in France when the two militants stormed his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray last Tuesday and slit his throat at the altar.

Abdel Malik Petitjean and Adel Kermiche had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group and both were shot dead by police after a tense hostage drama in which a worshipper was left seriously wounded. Three other hostages escaped unharmed.

The man who was stabbed in the neck and chest, an octogenarian like Hamel, was thought to be well enough to attend Tuesday's funeral mass.

The attack stunned France's religious communities, sparking fears of tensions in a country with a population of some five million Muslims.

Pope Francis spoke out Monday, saying Islam could not be equated with terrorism.

"It's not true and it's not correct (to say) Islam is terrorism," he said, defending his decision not to name Islam when condemning the brutal murder.

"If I have to talk about Islamic violence, I have to talk about Christian violence. Every day in the newspapers, I see violence in Italy, someone kills his girlfriend, another kills his mother-in-law, and these are baptised Catholics."

The series of terror attacks in France have raised tough questions about security failures, but also about the foreign funding of many mosques.

Cazeneuve said Monday that authorities have shut down around 20 mosques and prayer halls considered to be preaching radical Islam since December.

"There is no place ... in France for those who call for and incite hatred in prayer halls or in mosques," the minister said.

Petitjean's 30-year-old cousin was charged Sunday with "criminal association in connection with terrorism".

Media reports say Petitjean and Kermiche met through the encrypted messaging app Telegram.

In a separate case Sunday, 20-year-old Jean-Philippe J. was charged with trying to travel to Syria with Petitjean last month.