A policeman secures a position in front of the city hall after two assailants took five people hostage in the church at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen in Normandy, France, July 26, 2016. The attackers killed a priest and seriously wounded another hostage before being shot dead by police. RNS Photo/Courtesy of Pascal Rossignol, Reuters

Priest slain in France while saying Mass; ISIS claims attack

By  Josephine Mckenna, Religion News Service
  • July 26, 2016

ROME – France was convulsed by another horrific attack as armed men burst into a Catholic Church near Rouen and slit the throat of a priest who was saying Mass.

The slain priest, Fr. Jacques Hamel, who was in his mid-80s, was one of four people taken hostage on Tuesday morning (July 26) by the attackers, who authorities said had claimed to be from Daesh, the Arabic term for the Islamic State group.

One of the other hostages was reportedly in critical condition and both assailants were reportedly killed by security forces.

French President Francois Hollande said ISIS was behind the attack, and Prime Minister Manuel Valls called it “a barbaric attack on a church.”

“The whole of France and all Catholics are wounded. We will stand together,” he added.

The attack took place at the parish church in the town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, in Normandy. It was the latest in a string of deadly terrorist attacks in Europe in the past couple of weeks, including the Bastille Day attack in the French city of Nice that saw 84 people killed, and killings in several places in Germany within the past week.

The imam of the mosque in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray said he was “appalled by the death of my friend,” according to the French newspaper Le Figaro.

“He gave his life for others,” the imam, Mohammed Karabila, was quoted as saying. “We are shocked here at the mosque.”

At the Vatican, Pope Francis’ spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi issued a statement saying the pontiff has been informed “and participates in the pain and horror of this absurd violence, with the most radical condemnation of all forms of hatred and prayer for those affected.”

“We are particularly affected because this horrific violence took place in a church, a sacred place where the love of God is proclaimed, with the barbaric killing of a priest and the involvement of the faithful,” the statement read.

Guinean prelate Cardinal Robert Sarah said he was praying for the victims and for France and asked in a tweet: “How many more dead before European governments understand the situation in which the West finds itself? How many more decapitated heads?”

Hamel was an auxiliary priest in the parish and was filling in for the regular parish priest, who had just left on vacation, the New York Times reported. He was ordained in 1958 and had celebrated his golden jubilee in 2008, according to the diocesan web site.

The titular parish priest, Fr. Auguste Moanda-Phuati, told the French broadcaster RTL that Hamel had refused to retire at age 75, as the Church allows, because of the shortage of Catholic clergy in France.

“He was a courageous priest at his age. He still felt strong,” said Moanda-Phuati, who, according to French press reports, is Congolese.

The Islamic State group issued a statement saying the church attack was carried out by two “soldiers” from the group, which has claimed responsibility for inspiring a number of brutal terror attacks in France and elsewhere in Europe.

If ISIS was behind the attack, it would signal a new phase in the battle against the terrorist group since it has not targeted Christian sites in Europe.

The Vatican has long been on a state of high alert for threats against Pope Francis, who leaves Rome on Wednesday for a five-day trip to World Youth Day in Poland. Christians in the Middle East have increasingly been subject to vicious attacks by Islamic radicals.

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