PARIS – France’s main religious leaders have sent a message of unity and solidarity following a meeting with French President Francois Hollande after Islamic State extremists attacked a Catholic church and slit the throat of an elderly priest.
Hollande was presiding over a defence council and cabinet meeting Wednesday after speaking with Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish leaders.
On Tuesday, the attackers took hostages at the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, in the northwest region of Normandy, during morning Mass. After the priest was slain, both attackers, one a local man, were killed by police outside the church.
Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, called on Catholics to “overcome hatred that comes in their heart” and not to “enter the game” of the Islamic State group that “wants to set children of the same family upon each other.”
The rector of the main Paris mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, said France’s Muslims must push for better training of Muslim clerics and urged that reforming French Muslim institutions be put on the agenda, but without elaborating.
The French prosecutor identified one of the attackers as Adel Kermiche, a 19-year-old who grew up in the town and tried to travel to Syria twice last year using family members’ identity documents. He was detained outside France, sent home, handed preliminary terrorism charges and wore a tracking bracelet.
The identity of the second attacker has not been made public. Police combing the area after the attack detained a 16 year-old whom prosecutor Francois Molins said was the younger brother of a young man who travelled to the Syria-Iraq zone of the Islamic State group – carrying the ID of Kermiche.
Candles were set in front of the town hall, and stunned townsfolk were calling for the kind of unity Hollande is seeking.
“It’s going to be hard to admit it … we are scared …,” said Mulas Arbanu, a resident of the town near Rouen. “Be we Christians, Muslims, anything, we have to be together.”
Said Aid Lahcen had met the 85-year-old Rev. Jacques Hamel, the slain priest, in the past.
“From the moment when you touch a religion, you attack the nation, and you attack a people. We must not get into divergences, but stay united people as we were before,” he said.