Priest's murder a 'desecration of French democracy', says Hollande
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French President François Hollande described the killing of Father Jacques Hamel by two men swearing allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group as a “desecration of French democracy”, in an address to the nation on Tuesday evening.
Two attackers killed Hamel and seriously wounded at least one other hostage in a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen early Tuesday before they were shot dead by police.
The two assailants entered the church during Mass, taking the 86-year-old priest and four other people hostage, including two nuns. Police said the men killed the priest by slitting his throat.
An interior ministry spokesperson said a second hostage was "between life and death".
Pierre-Henry Brandet, the spokesperson for the interior ministry, said the identities of the attackers remained unclear, but that anti-terrorism prosecutors would lead the investigation.
He told reporters at the scene that the two assailants had been killed by the BRI, a specialised police group, as they came out of the church building.
Brandet said bomb squad officers aided by sniffer dogs had been scouring the church for any possible explosives.
IS group claims attack
The IS group claimed responsibility for the deadly assault in a statement via their Amaq news agency, saying two of their “soldiers” had responded “to the call to target” Western countries.
Police sources told French media that one of the two perpetrators was on one of France’s terror-watch lists, known as the “fiche S”. The man had been put under house arrest after attempting to reach Syria last year, the sources told AFP and iTele.
French police have arrested one person in connection with the attack, a source close to the inquiry said.
‘We will stand together’
In an address to the nation on Tuesday evening, Hollande renewed his call for the people of France to stand together in the fight against terrorism. He added that the government was determined to confront the jihadist threat, and would deploy all the material and human resources necessary.
However, Hollande cautioned against restricting civil liberties, saying that waiving constitutional freedoms would weaken the unity of the nation.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls also expressed "horror at the barbaric attack on a church".
"The whole of France and all Catholics are wounded. We will stand together," he wrote on Twitter.
The archbishop of Rouen, Dominique Lebrun, said in a statement: "I cry out to God with all men of goodwill. I invite non-believers to join in the cry. (...) The Catholic Church has no other arms besides prayer and brotherhood among men."
At the Vatican, the pope's office condemned the "barbarous killing" of the priest, saying the crime was even more heinous because it took place in a sacred place.
Horreur face à l'attaque barbare d'une église de Seine-Maritime. La France entière et tous les catholiques sont meurtris. Nous ferons bloc.— Manuel Valls (@manuelvalls) July 26, 2016
The incident comes as France is under high alert after an attack in Nice that killed 84 people and a string of deadly attacks last year claimed by the IS group.
The Nice attack was the third major strike on France in 18 months. Two attacks in Germany claimed by the IS group since then have also increased jitters in Europe.
After the attack in Nice, France extended a state of emergency, giving police extra powers to carry out searches and place people under house arrest for another six months.
It was the fourth time the security measures have been extended since the IS group jihadists struck Paris in November, killing 130 people at restaurants, the Bataclan concert hall and the national stadium.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)