Thursday 8 December 2016

'When I saw them I thought, that's it, it's over' - Nun describes cowardly Isis attack on priest (85) in French church

Priest (85) forced to kneel as Isil killers filmed themselves slitting his throat

David Chazan

Published 27/07/2016 | 02:30

Members of French special police forces of Research and Intervention Brigade (BRI) and French scientific police are seen at the scene during a raid after the hostage-taking in the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen in which Fr Jacques Hamel was murdered. Photo: Reuters
Members of French special police forces of Research and Intervention Brigade (BRI) and French scientific police are seen at the scene during a raid after the hostage-taking in the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen in which Fr Jacques Hamel was murdered. Photo: Reuters
Police officers speak to a driver as they close off a road during a hostage situation in Normandy, France (BFM via AP)
Police officers close off a road during a hostage situation in Normandy, France (BFM via AP)
The bell tower of the church is seen after a hostage-taking in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen in Normandy, France, July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol
The bell tower of the church is seen after a hostage-taking in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen in Normandy, France, July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

The daily morning Mass at the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray had started out just like any other. Inside the church, just two worshippers and two nuns sat in the aisles, while at the altar at the head of the church stood Father Jacques Hamel.

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The 85-year-old was an ordinary "humble" priest, described as a "treasure" by some, according to grieving locals, who was only conducting the service because the priest due to lead it was on his annual holiday.

Nothing would have seemed untoward. Fr Hamel was the very pillar of the community and yesterday he was conducting the morning Mass as he must have done for decades. And then at 9.45am local time, hell broke loose in the house of God; the calm of the church in a suburb of Rouen, in Normandy was shattered by a barbaric attack.

Two men entered through the back of the church and approached worshippers, wielding knives and screaming: "Allahu Akbar" (God is great).

Their proclamation, of their own religious devotion, must have reverberated around the walls of the Catholic church with a chilling terror. Theirs was an anti-Christian crusade.

The terrorists then held the small gathering hostage for the next hour.

Late priest Jacques Hamel. Photo: AFP/Getty
Late priest Jacques Hamel. Photo: AFP/Getty

They had come armed with knives, an old pistol which did not work and a package containing fake explosives

Sister Danielle, one of the two nuns present and who would later make a daring escape, described how the two men, one a teenager, ordered the priest and congregation to sit in a group.

"I was afraid, yes, afraid especially when they entered. When I saw them enter I thought to myself, 'That's it, it's over,'" she said.

It appears they then singled out Father Jacques.

"They made him kneel," said Sister Danielle, not quite believing what she had witnessed.

"They started talking, instead of Jacques. He had come to celebrate Mass and they took his place and started talking in Arabic."

French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with masked police after arriving at the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. Photo: AP
French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with masked police after arriving at the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. Photo: AP

"I don't know what they said. But something along the lines of, 'You Christians, you're eliminating us.' It was that kind of conversation. They shouted a bit."

The parishioners tried to dissuade the attackers, one of them a 19-year-old local boy, Adel Kermiche, who had twice before tried to reach Syria.

The parish of Saint-Etienne. Photo: Reuters
The parish of Saint-Etienne. Photo: Reuters

Sister Danielle said: "In the church, everyone was shouting, 'Stop! You don't know what you're doing.'

"But they didn't stop. They forced him (Fr Hamel) to get down on his knees, he tried to defend himself and then the horror started."

The jihadists produced what seemed to be a camera, most likely a camera phone, and began videoing the events as they unfolded.

They began chanting in Arabic at the altar while Fr Hamel is thought, despite his advancing years, to have bravely protested.

"They recorded themselves and enacted a sermon around the altar in Arabic. It's horrific," said Sister Danielle.

Police arrested one other person close to the scene. Photo: Reuters
Police arrested one other person close to the scene. Photo: Reuters

"He (Fr Hamel) was at the foot of the altar and they made him kneel down and not move. When I saw the knife in his right hand, I said to myself, 'Well, something is definitely going to happen.'

"He tried to struggle, but he is 85 years old. He sensed what was happening, he knew what was going to happen."

Then one of the men pulled out a knife to prepare the priest for execution. With the assailants distracted, she made a run for safety as the remaining worshippers started screaming.

The priest's throat was cut quickly and another nun was attacked. She would later be taken to hospital, where she was last night in critical condition.

"I fled the church and stopped the first car I saw," said Sister Danielle, "The driver phoned the police immediately. It was very quick."

Armed officers flooded the area in response.

At 10.45am - an hour after the two men had taken their hostages - they tried to run away. But the church by then had been surrounded by police.

The terrorists raced on to the courtyard of the church and died in a hail of bullets in a 30-second gun battle.

One eyewitness report suggested the two men had fired as they tried to escape but police believe the killers' single gun had failed to work.

However, one policeman was injured in the calf, hit by a bullet that possibly came from a colleague.

One eyewitness said: "The area around the church was sealed off, and then armed officers appeared with their weapons. I heard at least a dozen shots."

Isil later claimed responsibility in a statement that described the killers as "two soldiers of the Islamic State".

In the aftermath, a French bomb squad entered the church, completing their search at around 4pm. The bomb they found was a dummy.

Locals lined up to pay tribute to the fallen priest. Claude-Albert Seguin, a 68-year-old pensioner, who had taken police advice and locked himself in his home with the shutters drawn, said: "Everyone knew him very well. He was very loved in the community and a kind man."

Priest Alexandre Joly, who knew the murdered priest, said: "If we are afraid, they have won. They must not win. Our response will be to pray. We must not enter in the game of fear, of rejection."

Hubert Wulfranc, the mayor of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, urged France to unite against terror.

Barely able to speak through tears, the mayor said: "Let us, together, be the last ones to cry. Let us together... stand up against barbarism."

At the home of Father Jaques Hamel, a handwritten note attached to a single floral tribute said simply: "Rest in Peace, you were formidable, we will never forget you."

Telegraph.co.uk

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