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Religious leaders express ‘horror’ at attack on church in France

Charly Triballeau, AFP | A police vehicle parked a few metres away from the parish church in the northwestern French town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray

Pope Francis led condemnation of an assault on a church in northwestern France on Tuesday, which claimed the life of an 86-year-old priest and left four people injured, one critically. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack.

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Francis expressed his “horror” at the attack a day before he was due to attend World Youth Day, an international gathering of young Catholics, in Krakow, Poland, where security was immediately tightened in response to the assault.

“We are particularly shocked because this horrible violence took place in a Church, in which God’s love is announced, with the barbarous killing of a priest and the involvement of the faithful,” said Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See press office.

The pope’s comments came hours after two armed men stormed a parish church in the town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray – a suburb of Rouen located around 128 kilometres northwest of Paris – taking the priest, Father Jacques Hamel, and four other people hostage.

The two assailants slit the priest’s throat and wounded the four hostages, one critically, before they were shot dead by elite BRI police who had surrounded the building, according to the interior ministry.

Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen, who was in Krakow for World Youth Day at the time of the attack, issued a statement calling on both followers and non-believers to come together.

"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," he said, adding that he would be returning to his diocese that night.

There was also an outpouring of support and condolences from other religious leaders across France in the aftermath of the attack.

Mohammed Karabila, president of the Regional Council of the Muslim Faith in Haute-Normandie (Conseil régional du culte musulman de Haute-Normandie), deplored the loss of his friend, Father Hamel.

“I don’t understand, all of our prayers go out to his family and the Catholic community,” Karabila said.

The two men met frequently over the past 18 months as part of an interfaith council to discuss religion and community life. “He was someone who gave his life to others. We are stunned here at the mosque,” Karabila said.

The nationwide French Council of the Muslim Faith (Conseil français du culte musulman or CFCM) echoed Karabila’s comments, denouncing the attack as a “terrifying and horrifying act” and expressing its solidarity with “all Catholics of France”.

“[We call on] all leaders of different faiths to meet, exchange and fight against this hateful speech,” the CFCM said.

The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France) also condemned the “odious murder”, which it said “marks a new phase in the progession of terrorism in France”.

The Islamic State group claimed the assault on Tuesday via its Amaq news agency. The church attack is the latest in a string of deadly incidents across Europe claimed by the jihadist organisation, including a Bastille Day massacre in the southern French city of Nice and two attacks in Germany last week.

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