French church where priest slain to reopen

People gathering in front of the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in northern France on July 28, 2016, where French priest Jacques Hamel was killed.
People gathering in front of the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in northern France on July 28, 2016, where French priest Jacques Hamel was killed. PHOTO: AFP

SAINT-ETIENNE DU ROUVRAY, France (AFP) - Two months after its priest was murdered by teenage militants, parishioners of a Catholic church in northern France will gather Sunday (Oct 2) for a solemn re-opening ceremony to seek solace and solidarity.

The Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray church, a focal point of a small town of some 27,000 near the city of Rouen, will hold a special penitential mass to mark the occasion and pay tribute to Father Jacques Hamel.

The 85-year-old priest had his throat slit at the foot of the altar on July 26 in an attack claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

"He was a good priest. I always went to see him and he never refused to be of service," said 81-year-old Mafalda Pace, who lives just next door to the 16th-century church.

Pace said Saturday she would be among those following the penitential rite of cleansing and subsequent mass presided over by Archbishop of Rouen Dominique Lebrun.

"The rite consists of 'cleansing' the church through the sprinkling of holy water," said the archbishop, who also celebrated an Aug 2 funeral mass for the slain priest at Rouen Cathedral which was attended by President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

In a show of inter-faith solidarity, Muslims and Jews were among the mourners on that occasion.

The killing came less than two weeks after the Bastille Day attack that claimed 86 lives when a Tunisian extremist rammed a truck into crowds on a popular promenade in the southern city of Nice.

The murder of Hamel and the Nice massacre some seven months after the November Paris attacks were the latest in a series of terrorist attacks to rock France over the past year and a half.

Sunday's rite is designed to wipe away the profaning of the church at the hands of terrorists Adel Kermiche, a local man, and Abdel-Malik Petitjean, both of whom were shot dead by police following a siege.

Local clergy will join the archbishop for Sunday's services, which will follow a mid-afternoon procession to the church with members of the local Muslim community pledging to join.

"It will be a day of brotherhood ... I hope that all local people will be there, believers or not," Mohamed Karabila, representing the local mosque, told AFP.