RIYADH, July 27, (Agencies): Saudi Arabia on Wednesday condemned “in the strongest terms” the attack on a church in France that saw a priest killed by Islamic State group followers.
Neighbouring Gulf states Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar have issued similar statements condemning the attack. “This cowardly terrorist act is rejected by Islam which necessitates protecting places of worship and prohibits violating their sacredness,” said the statement published on the official SPA news agency.
Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, a member of the USled coalition fighting IS in Syria and Iraq, bans churches and all other non-Muslim places of worship.
Two attackers stormed the church in the northern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray during morning mass on Tuesday, slitting the throat of an 86-year-old priest and leaving a worshipper with serious injuries. IS said the attack was carried out by its “soldiers”.
The United Arab Emirates also condemned the attack in France which it said only aims to “spread sedition and fuel hatred.” “This shocking crime reveals the lowness of its perpetrators and those behind them,” the UAE said, urging world countries to “work decisively and without hesitation to confront terrorism in all its forms.” The assault comes less than two weeks after a man ploughed a truck into a crowd in the Riviera city of Nice, killing 84 people and injuring over 300.
France’s main religious leaders sent a message of unity and solidarity after meeting Wednesday with French President Francois Hollande a day after two extremists attacked a Catholic church and slit the throat of an elderly priest in front of other hostages. Yet even as they spoke, more horrifying details of the church attack became known.
An 86-year-old woman, one of five held hostage Tuesday at the Normandy church, said the attackers had handed her husband Guy a cellphone and demanded that he take photos or video of the priest after he was killed. Her husband was in turn slashed in four places by the attackers and is now hospitalized with serious injuries.
The attackers took hostages at the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, in France’s northwest region of Normandy, during morning Mass. After the priest was slain, both attackers, at least one of them a local man, were killed by police outside the church.
The exact timeline of the attack is still unclear. The elderly woman identified only as Jeanine told RMC radio that her husband played dead to stay alive. Two nuns were held hostage along with the couple and the priest, while a third nun escaped and gave the alert.
France was still coming to grips with the Bastille Day attack in Nice that killed 84 people when the church was attacked Tuesday. With the attack threat ranked extremely high, France must also protect 56 remaining summer events, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve noted Wednesday, adding that where “optimal” security cannot be assured, an event will be canceled.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said 4,000 members of the military force called Sentinel will patrol Paris, while 6,000 will patrol in the provinces. They are bolstered by tens of thousands of police and reservists being called up.
Hollande, meanwhile, presided over a defense council and cabinet meeting Wednesday in Paris after speaking with Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish leaders. The archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, called on Catholics to “overcome hatred that comes in their heart” and not to “enter the game” of the Islamic State group that “wants to set children of the same family upon each other.”
The rector of the main Paris mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, said France’s Muslims must push for better training of Muslim clerics and urged that reforming French Muslim institutions be put on the agenda. He did not elaborate. As authorities looked for ways to prevent extremist attacks, gruesome details of the church attack trickled out.
The attackers killed the priest celebrating Mass, the Rev. Jacques Hamel, 85. “He fell down looking upwards, toward us,” said Jeanine, the ex-hostage, who said they forced her husband to then take pictures or video. “The terrorists held me with a revolver at my neck,” she said, adding it was not clear to her now whether the weapon was real or fake.
The Paris prosecutor, Francois Molins, said the two attackers had knives and fake explosives — one a phony suicide belt covered in tin foil. He identifi ed one of the attackers as Adel Kermiche, a 19-year-old who grew up in the town and tried to travel to Syria twice last year using family members’ identity documents.
He was detained outside France, sent home, handed preliminary terrorism charges and wore a tracking bracelet that was turned off four hours a day. The identity of the second attacker has not been made public. Police combing the area after the attack detained a 16-year-old whom Molins said was the younger brother of a young man who traveled to the Syria- Iraq zone of the Islamic State group carrying the ID of Kermiche.
Young and old in the Normandy town were stunned by the attack. An 18-year-old neighbor said he had seen Kermiche just three days earlier in nearby Rouen wearing a long Islamic robe.
When he heard about the attack, “I knew it was him, I was sure,” the young man told The Associated Press, identifying himself as Redwan. Kermiche had told him and other youth about his efforts to get to Syria and “he was saying we should go there and fi ght for our brothers.” “We were saying that is not good and he was replying that France is the land of unbelievers,” Redwan said.
Candles were set out in front of the town hall as residents called for unity. “It’s going to be hard to admit it … we are scared …,” said Mulas Arbanu. “Be we Christians, Muslims, anything, we have to be together.” Said Aid Lahcen had met the slain priest in the past. “From the moment when you touch a religion, you attack the nation, and you attack a people. We must not get into divergences, but stay united people as we were before,” he said. The head of the European Commission on Tuesday pledged “Europe’s solidarity and cooperation in the fi ght against barbarity”, in a letter to French President Francois Hollande after a church attack claimed by the Islamic State group. “More than ever, all over Europe, solidarity and cooperation will be essential in the fi ght against barbarity and to ensure that our shared values prevail,” Jean-Claude Juncker wrote.
“The European Commission is fully mobilised, along with other European institutions, to provide all the support it can to France in these painful moments,” he added. In a statement, the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also expressed solidarity and offered her “condolences to the families of the victims, to France and the Catholic Church.” “Targeting a man of faith, of any faith, is always a crime against our common humanity because it means targeting the deeper essence of our lives, believers and non-believers alike,” she said. “The right answer is to keep living together, to stop the hatred,” Mogherini said.
“The terrible, daily news of attacks reinforce our common work against terrorism, within and beyond our borders,” she said. “It’s unity that will make us prevail.” The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, wrote on Twitter: “We stand side by side with the French in the face of this incomprehensible savagery.”