Dr Martin Parsons
European security forces and police this week warned churches to step up their security after the martyrdom of the 84-year-old French priest, Father Jacques Hamel an 84 year old priest by two knife wielding assassins.
The attackers entered the back of the church as Father Hamel celebrated the eucharist and took hostage Father Hamel, two nuns and two other worshippers. The men reportedly shouted “Daesh” before cutting the throat of Father Hamel and critically injuring another male hostage. Le Figaro reported that another nun was able to escape and raise the alarm. A local resident reported that the knifemen shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they emerged from the church and were shot by police with at least one of the attackers being killed.
The attack happened in the sixteenth century church where Father Hamel had served for several decades in the town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray. The town lies just south of Rouen in the Normandy region of northern France and is about 50 miles inland from the English Channel.
A few hours after reports of the attack began to emerge the Amaq news agency which is linked to Islamic State claimed that “two IS soldiers” had carried out the attack.
The identity of the attackers is not yet clearly known, although there are reports that one was a local man who had previously tried to travel to Syria to join Islamic State. The Normandy region has produced home grown jihadists in the past, including French jihadist Maxine Hauchard who appeared alongside Englishman Jihadi John in an Islamic State video of the beheading of American aid worker Peter Kassing in November 2014.
The report that the attackers shouted “Daesh” before murdering Father Hamel, if accurate, suggests that this is much more likely to have been an attack inspired by Islamic State rather than one directly carried out by them, despite the subsequent claims made by IS.
The victims of the attack – being an elderly priest and nuns – parallel an attack four and half months ago on a retirement home for nuns run by a charity established by Mother Teresa in Yemen’s capital Aden. However, the specific targeting of Christian leaders is something that has been happening in Iraq since August 2006, almost exactly ten years ago. What is particularly significant about this attack is that such actions now appear to be spreading to mainland Europe.
Earlier this year the persecuted church agency Barnabas Fund warned of the dangers of attacks on churches in the West and produced a booklet “Pray and Protect” to help churches identify precautions they could take (available at a cost of £1 plus postage at resources page.)
The UK government announced concerns that there may be attack on places of worship and in the last few days have announced a £2.4 million fund to help provide security for places of worship of all faiths. Applications for funding started on Tuesday 26 July, and must be made in the next 8 weeks. For details – click