85-year-old killed and nuns taken hostage during mass in terror group’s first attack on Christian church in Europe

The Daily Telegraph. 27 Jul 2016. By John Bingham and David Chazan


ISIL opened a new front in its war with the West by murdering a French priest yesterday in the first such attack on a Christian church in Europe.

Two terrorists, proclaimed as “soldiers” by the extremist group, cut the throat of Father Jacques Hamel, an 85year-old priest, after taking worshippers including two nuns hostage during mass at a church in Normandy.

Experts said the atrocity, in SaintEtienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen, marked a new departure for the jihadists following a catalogue of attacks on places of worship in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Father Hamel – forced to kneel by his two killers who were later shot dead by police – was last night hailed as a “martyr of faith”.

François Hollande, the French president, yesterday promised to win the war against terrorism. In a televised address to the nation he said: “To attack a church, kill a priest, is to profane the republic.”

He urged the country to stay united. “What terrorists want is to divide us, separate us, set us against each other,” he said, adding: “We will win this war.”

Last night it emerged that one of the alleged killers, Adel Kermiche, 19, had been under police supervision and wearing an electronic tag at the time of the attack. He had been kept in custody for 10 months after being caught trying to travel to Syria last year, raising fears French security had blundered in failing to keep him under surveillance.

Kermiche’s uncle, Akin Dendani, was tearful and shaking as he told The

Daily Telegraph last night that his nephew had been “manipulated” by extremists. He said his nephew had become “serene” before the attack.

“I don’t know who they are. But when I find out I will go and find them myself,” he said, at the family bungalow in a suburb of Rouen.

The slaying of Father Hamel also raised questions about the vulnerability of places of worship because the church where the attack took place had been identified as a potential Isil target.

Last night Christians in Britain were warned by police to be vigilant and alert when attending church, as the Home Office announced an extra £2.4m for security measures for places of worship.

Police said the attackers slipped into the church at about 9.45am local time during morning mass and took Father Hamel and a handful of others hostage, one of whom was seriously wounded.

Officers shot the pair dead as they emerged from the church with their hostages. One survivor, a nun who gave her name as Sister Danielle, told how Father Hamel had been forced to his knees before having his throat slit. “They recorded themselves,” she told BFM television. “They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic. It’s a horror.” Sister Danielle escaped in the confusion and flagged down a passing motorist who called the police.

The murdered priest was described by politicians and Christian leaders as a “martyr”. At Downing Street, Theresa May offered “my condolences to the French people”. She added: “Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, tweeted in English and French: “Evil attacks the weakest, denies truth and love, is defeated through Jesus Christ. Pray for France, for victims, for their communities.”

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, joined a group of Muslim clerics in denouncing the attack. He said it added “another layer of depravity” to the violence of recent weeks. In a letter to Dominique Lebrun, Archbishop of Rouen, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow, said it was “shocking development”. He added: “May God have mercy on us all.”

Col Richard Kemp, former chairman of the Cobra Intelligence Group, said churches should consider tactics such as guards and patrols during services.

Father Jacques Hamel, 84, was saying morning Mass when the men entered through a back door, shouting in Arabic as they approached the altar.

They forced the much-loved priest to kneel before he was murdered by one of the knifemen while the other filmed the atrocity.

The attackers also took four hostages at the church, two nuns and two parishioners. Another nun, Sister Danielle, managed to escape as the violence began and raised the alarm. Police marksmen who rushed to the church near Rouen in Normandy shot both jihadists dead. Islamic State later described them as its ‘soldiers’.