PARIS • French religious leaders have called on the authorities to provide greater security at places of worship after extremists killed a priest in a Normandy church, as a violence-weary France struggled to come to terms with the latest attack just two weeks after the Bastille Day truck massacre in Nice.
President Francois Hollande gathered with the leaders of the country's main religions yesterday seeking to head off divisions between religious communities a day after two attackers stormed into a church in the northern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray during morning mass, slitting the throat of an 86-year-old priest.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned that the goal of the attack, claimed by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was to "set the French people against each other, attack religion in order to start a war of religions".
In an editorial, the newspaper Le Monde said a key strategy of ISIS was to eradicate the so-called "grey zone" in which Muslims live peacefully alongside those of other religions, making it so uncomfortable for them to do so that they are forced to join ranks with militants.
The Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, told journalists after the meeting at the Elysee Palace: "We cannot allow ourselves to be dragged into the politics of Daesh (ISIS), which wants to set the children of the same family against each other."
He was flanked by representatives of other Christian denominations as well as Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist leaders.
French Muslim leader Dalil Boubakeur voiced his "deep grief" at the attack, which he described as a "blasphemous sacrilege which goes against all the teachings of our religion". He also called for increased security at places of worship.
The Nice attack, the third major strike on France in 18 months, had prompted a political spat over alleged security failings, and revelations over the church attack are likely to raise further questions.
One of the two church attackers was identified as French militant Adel Kermiche, 19, who was awaiting trial on terror charges. He was known to intelligence services after failed bids to travel to Syria to fight.
One of his acquaintances told Le Parisien newspaper that Kermiche had been excluded from school at the age of 12 due to "behaviour issues", adding that he had been a "time bomb". He lived with his parents less than 2km from the church, and spent much of the day under curfew fitted with an electronic tag. His tag did not send an alarm as the attack occurred during the four-hour period that he was allowed out.
The deputy chief of France's police union, Mr Frederic Lagache, said that "it should not be possible for someone awaiting trial on charges of having links to terrorism to be released" on house arrest.
French investigators believe the second assailant was a 19-year-old from south-eastern France who was previously unknown to police, a judicial source said yesterday.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS