France aims to ease religious fears after church attack

French Jewish, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim leaders speaking to the media after meeting the French President, in Paris, on July 27, 2016.
French Jewish, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim leaders speaking to the media after meeting the French President, in Paris, on July 27, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

SAINT-ETIENNE-DU-ROUVRAY, France (AFP) – President Francois Hollande sought Wednesday to head off divisions between France’s religious communities after the ISIS-claimed murder of a Catholic priest in his church, as calls mounted for tougher security measures.

Hollande gathered top religious leaders at his Elysee Palace offices, as a violence-weary France struggled to come to terms with the latest attack, just two weeks after the Bastille Day truck massacre that killed 84 people.

France’s large Catholic community was in shock after two men stormed into a church in the northern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray during morning mass and cut the 86-year-old priest’s throat at the altar.

One of the two attackers was identified as French terrorist Adel Kermiche, who was awaiting trial on terror charges and had been fitted with an electronic tag.

“We are stunned because we did not know it was dangerous to be a priest these days in France,” said Pierre Amar, a priest from Versailles near Paris.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned that the goal of the attack, claimed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, was to “set the French people against each other, attack religion in order to start a war of religions”.

Following the meeting with Hollande, the head of France’s Muslim community – the largest in Europe – urged stepped-up security at places of worship.

“We deeply desire that our places of worship are the subject of greater (security) focus, a sustained focus,” said Dalil Boubakeur.

In the name of French Muslims, he voiced his “deep grief” at the attack which he described as a “blasphemous sacrilege which goes against all the teachings of our religion”.

The third major strike on France in 18 months has prompted a bitter political spat over alleged security failings, and revelations over the church attack were likely to raise further questions.

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the 19-year-old Kermiche first came to the attention of anti-terror officials when a family member alerted he was missing in March 2015. German officials arrested him and found he was using his brother’s identity in a bid to travel to Syria.

He was released under judicial supervision, but in May fled to Turkey where he was again arrested and returned to France. He was then held in custody until March this year.

Kermiche was released and fitted with the electronic bracelet, which allowed him to leave his house on weekdays between 8am and 12.30pm, Molins said.

Tuesday’s attack prompted renewed opposition calls to further harden France’s anti-terrorism legislation.

But Socialist Hollande – who faces a tough re-election bid next year – rejected them, saying: “Restricting our freedoms will not make the fight against terrorism more effective.” Changes made to legislation in 2015, and the extension of a state of emergency in the wake of the Nice attack, already gave authorities sufficient “capacity to act,” he said.

But the deputy chief of France’s police union, Frederic Lagache, said: “It should not be possible for someone awaiting trial on charges of having links to terrorism to be released” on house arrest.

Mohammed Karabila, who heads the regional council of Muslim worship for Haute Normandie, where the church attack took place, asked simply: “How could a person wearing an electronic bracelet carry out an attack? Where are the police?”

Kermiche and another assailant entered the centuries-old stone church of Saint Etienne, taking hostage the priest, Jacques

Hamel, three nuns and two worshippers.

One of the nuns managed to escape and call police, who tried to negotiate with the hostage-takers.

The nun, Sister Danielle, told local radio RMC that the men were speaking Arabic and shouting, and had “recorded” the attack.

Three hostages were lined up in front of the church door, meaning police could not launch an assault, said Molins.

Two nuns and one worshipper left the church followed by the two attackers, one carrying a handgun, who charged at police shouting “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest). Police gunned down the terrorists.

Joanna Torrent, a 22-year-old store employee, was stunned to see terror hit her small working-class town of 30,000 people, far from bustling tourist hubs like Paris and Nice.

“I thought it would only be in big cities, that it couldn’t reach here,” she said.

Saint Etienne’s stone-and-brick town hall, a short distance from the church, became a communal grieving place as residents signed a condolence book and left candles and flowers.

A silent march will set off from the town hall on Thursday.

Outside Saint Etienne’s Yahya Mosque – which sits on land donated by the adjacent Sainte Therese church – Karabila said his community had “never had problems with the authorities or the neighbours”.

He added: “Here we don’t preach hatred or we would be shut down.”