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Church attack renews French security fears over soft targets

Matthieu Alexandre, AFP | The parish of Saint-Etienne in Normandy, France

The killing of a Catholic priest in a small parish in Normandy by men claiming allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group has raised questions about France’s ability to secure tens of thousands of churches across the country.


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French authorities were well aware that churches were targeted by jihadists before Tuesday’s attack, in which Father Jacques Hamel was killed and four others were wounded during a morning Mass in the town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.

In its propaganda the IS group often makes reference to Western “crusaders” and “the kingdom of the Cross”, encouraging supporters to strike opponents where and when they are most vulnerable.

The Catholic community was targeted in April 2015, when a 24-year-old Algerian student planned – and ultimately failed – to carry out an attack on a church in the Parisian suburb of Villejuif.

On Tuesday, the terrorists did not miss their target, slitting Hamel’s throat and sparking a short-lived hostage situation before police took them down in a hail of bullets.

As French media coverage focused on the tiny Catholic parish that had been suddenly thrust into the terrorism debate, President François Hollande told Pope Francis: “Everything will be done to protect our churches and places of worship.”

Too many churches

Following the January 2015 terror attacks that targeted satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket in Paris, France’s government began doing more to secure soft targets, including synagogues, churches and mosques.

Soldiers were ordered to stand guard outside synagogues and Jewish schools, which number around 700 in France, and nearly half of the country’s 2,500 mosques as part of Opération Sentinelle.

But that level of safety is impossible to match for Catholic churches, with around 45,000 parishes spread throughout the country. That number does not even include France’s 4,000 Protestant churches, 2,600 evangelical churches and 150 Christian Orthodox churches.

Around 1,227 Christian sites currently enjoy extra security. Those places were selected by officials after consultation with police prefects and religious leaders at the local level, and are subject to regular review. Measures range from simple patrols during religious services to round-the-clock surveillance.

Security has been increased in places that are deemed to be very sensitive, such as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Sacré Coeur Basilica, two of the most visited places in the world.

As part of smaller security measures, the government has advised parishes to ask the public to use only one entrance. Church staff can legally ask visitors to open their bags to show the contents but are not allowed to rummage inside.

The right answer?

On two occasions last year, on the August 15 Feast of Assumption and on Christmas Day, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve gave police specific instructions to boost security around Catholic churches, noting the symbolic power that an attack could carry on those dates.

Catholic leaders have welcomed the security surge but have publicly questioned its effectiveness.

"Just after the foiled attack in Villejuif we were careful not to open all the doors of churches [and] watched who was coming inside, but it’s not something we can maintain in the long term, it’s not realistic,” said Vincent Neymon, deputy spokesman of the Bishops' Conference of France.

"We also know that the government can’t station security forces in front of every church. Even if it did, would that be enough?" Neymon asked.

Hollande has scheduled an emergency meeting with French religious leaders at the Elysée Palace on Wednesday.

The Bishops' Conference has said it wants churches to remain “open places, welcoming places, true to the spirit of the Catholic religion”. And more security may be at odds with this goal of openness.

“It is through unity that we will win, we must avoid divisions at all costs, avoid the isolation of people within communities or society,” Neymon said.

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