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French church reopens after priest killed in IS group attack

Charly Triballeau, AFP | People gather outside the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray on July 28, 2016.

Parishioners in the small town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in northern France gathered on Sunday for the solemn reopening of the church where Father Jacques Hamel was murdered by teenage jihadists two months ago.

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The church near the city of Rouen held a special penitential mass to mark the occasion and pay tribute to the 85-year-old priest.

Father Hamel had his throat slit at the foot of the altar on July 26 in an attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.

"He was a good priest. I always went to see him and he never refused to be of service," said 81-year-old Mafalda Pace, who lives just next door to the 16th-century church.

The killing of Father Hamel shocked France and came on the heels of the Bastille Day attack that claimed 86 lives in the Mediterranean city of Nice.

Sunday's rite in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray was designed to wipe away the desecration of the church at the hands of jihadists Adel Kermiche, a local man, and Abdel-Malik Petitjean, both of whom were shot dead by police following a siege.

"The rite consists of 'cleansing' the church through the sprinkling of holy water," said Archbishop of Rouen Dominique Lebrun.

Fast track to sainthood

Coinciding with the special mass, Vatican sources travelling with Pope Francis in Azerbaijan said the pontiff was prepared to waive the usual waiting period before launching a process of beatification for Father Hamel.

Normally the Vatican observes a five-year "cooling off" period after the death of a candidate for sainthood before launching the process for beatification, the first step on the way.

Worshippers broke out in applause when Lebrun announced the news during the mass.

Several representatives of the town's Muslim community were in the front pew.

Mohamed Karabila, representing the local mosque, told AFP earlier that Sunday would be "a day of brotherhood" for Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, a working-class town of some 27,000 people.

The mosque's treasurer Aissa Habbani said: "We are against everything that happened. It affects us very much as well."

The jihadist attack, the first of its kind on a Christian church in Europe, stunned France's religious communities, sparking fears of tensions in a country with a population of some five million Muslims, the continent's largest.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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