Tuesday morning, a sparsely-attended Catholic Mass in France turned deadly as two knife-wielding teenagers stormed the church, took the worshipers hostage, and slit the throat of the priest.
Only 5 people had been in attendance at the morning Mass in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. Father Jacques Hamel, the 85-year-old priest who lost his life in the attack, had been filling in for the regular parish priest, who was on vacation. Although an octogenarian parishioner was also severely injured in the attack, police shot and killed the two attackers before there were any further civilian casualties.
On the day of the incident, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack through its news agency, Amaq. It later released a minute-long video allegedly depicting the teenagers pledging their allegiance to IS and praying aloud.
In the days following the attack, French law enforcement identified the assailants as 19-year-olds Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean. Kermiche lived only 5 miles from the site of the murder. Neighbors recall that he did not attend his local mosque, but rather became radicalized through online communities after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in early 2015, The Telegraph reported. Both teenagers had been placed on government watch lists after attempts to travel to Syria with false identity cards.
After being incarcerated for 10 months for his latest attempt to illegally enter Syria, Kermiche was placed under house arrest with an electronic monitoring tag. He used one of his legal 4-hour windows of free time to commit the murder.
The community of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray responded to the incident with grief and shock. Mohammed Karabila, the imam of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray’s mosque, expressed that he was “appalled by the death of my friend.”
“He gave his life for others,” Karabila said. “We are shocked here at the mosque.”
Father Alexandre Joly, the priest of a neighboring parish, told The New York Times that the setting of the murder—during a Mass—had shaken him.
“It’s an astonishingly strong symbol. It’s the moment when the priest is giving this act of love, that he is killed,” Joly said. “It’s incomprehensible. They jumped on him with their knives.”
The incident was the latest in a rash of IS-inspired terrorist attacks in France over the past year and a half. Just a week prior, a 31-year-old man drove a 19-ton truck more than a mile down a crowded street in Nice during the celebration of France’s national holiday, Bastille Day, killing 84 and injuring over 200.
Although France’s state of emergency—declared after November terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of 130 people—had been set to expire at the end of July, the government plans to extend the state of emergency for another three months. The extension would grant special powers to police and lawmakers investigating acts of terrorism.
However, with a preponderance of “soft targets”—including 45,000 Catholic churches in France alone—French leaders disagree on how best to guard against the mounting threat of disjointed attacks from radicalized individuals.
Georges Fenech, a conservative French politician, decried the string of attacks as “predictable tragedy.”
“I don’t want to hear about national unity,” Fenech said after the Bastille Day massacre. “Today, it is a duty to talk to the French people, to tell them that our country is not equipped against Islamist terrorism.”
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls spoke of the recent spate of attacks with somber resolve. “The times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism,” Valls said.
In the aftermath of France’s most recent tragedy, Pope Francis offered a message of religious unity in tragedy.
“The world is at war because it has lost peace,” Francis said Wednesday. “There is a war of interest, there is a war for money, a war for natural resources, a war to dominate people.”
“Some might think it is war of religion. It is not,” Francis continued. “All religions want peace. Others want war."
35-year-old Alexandre Herbert, a resident of a village neighboring the site of the murder, told CNN that French citizens must resist conflating the actions of radicalized individuals with the beliefs of many. “We must fight these terrorists,” Herbert said. “They justify their actions with religion, but religion has nothing to do with it.”
Since January 1, 2015, Europe and the Americas have been victim to nearly 50 terrorist attacks killing over 650 people, The Washington Post reports. In that same period, citizens in the Middle East were subjected to nearly 1500 attacks killing over 20,000 people.
--by Caroline Matas
Image Source: L’église de Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. Photo by besopha, Flickr Creative Commons.