Two Isil followers targeted a church in Normandy on Tuesday, slitting the throat of an elderly priest celebrating Mass and using hostages as human shields before being shot by police.
It was the extremist group’s first attack against a church in the West, and fulfills longstanding threats against “crusaders” in what the militants paint as a centuries-old battle for power. One of the attackers, who grew up in the town, had tried twice to leave for Syria; the second was not identified.
“To attack a church, to kill a priest, is to profane the republic,” French President Francois Hollande told the nation after speaking with Pope Francis, who condemned the killing in the strongest terms.
The Rev. Jacques Hamel was celebrating Mass for three nuns and two parishioners on a quiet summer morning in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray when the attackers burst in and forced the 85-year-old priest to his knees before slicing his throat, according to authorities and a nun who escaped.
A nun who escaped said the priest was forced to the ground before his throat was slit. “They forced him to his knees. He wanted to defend himself. And that’s when the tragedy happened,” said the woman, identified as Sister Danielle, speaking on BFM television.
She said the attackers filmed themselves. “They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic. It’s a horror.”
Hollande, visiting the scene of Tuesday’s slaying, denounced what he called “a vile terrorist attack” and one more sign that France is at war with the Islamic State group, which has claimed multiple attacks on France over the past year and a half, and two in Germany over the past week.