Volunteer confesses to setting French cathedral on fire

Firefighters are seen putting out the fire at the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral in Nantes, France, on July 18, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

RENNES, FRANCE (AFP) - A volunteer church assistant has confessed to setting the fire that severely damaged a Gothic cathedral in Nantes, western France, his lawyer said on Sunday (July 26).

The 39-year-old, an asylum-seeker from Rwanda who has lived in France for several years, was arrested on Saturday after laboratory analysis determined that arson was the likely cause of the blaze, the local prosecutor's office said.

"My client has cooperated," lawyer Quentin Chabert told the Presse-Ocean newspaper, without elaborating on motives for attempting to burn down the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul.

"He bitterly regrets his actions... My client is consumed with remorse," Mr Chabert said.

Prosecutors opened an arson inquiry after the early morning fire on July 18 after finding that it broke out in three different places in the church, which the volunteer had locked up the night before.

He was taken in for questioning the next day but later released without charge, with the cathedral's rector saying: "I trust him like I trust all the helpers."

But Nantes prosecutor Pierre Sennes said in a statement on Saturday that he had been charged with "destruction and damage by fire", and faces up to 10 years in prison and €150,000 (S$242,000) in fines.

"He admitted during his first appearance for questioning before the investigating judge that he set three fires in the cathedral: at the main organ, the smaller organ and the electrical panel," Mr Sennes told Presse-Ocean on Sunday.

The blaze came 15 months after the devastating fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which raised questions about the security risks for other historic churches across France.

While firefighters were able to contain the Nantes blaze after just two hours and save its main structure, the famed organ, which dated from 1621 and had survived the French revolution and World War II bombardment, was destroyed.

Also lost were priceless artefacts and paintings, including a work by the 19th-century artist Hippolyte Flandrin and stained glass windows that contained remnants of 16th-century glass.

Work on the cathedral began in 1434 and continued over the following centuries until 1891.

It had already been damaged by a more serious fire in 1972, when officials added concrete reinforcements while redoing the roof over the next 13 years.

The French government has said it will ensure the cathedral's restoration, though very few, if any, elements of the main organ are likely to be saved, said Mr Philippe Charron, head of the regional Drac state heritage agency.

"It will take several weeks to secure the site... and several months of inspections that will be carried out stone by stone," he said.

Reconstruction will take several years, he said.

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