VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis condemned the murder of an elderly French priest, calling it a “barbarous killing” as the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the brutal attack at a Catholic Church in northern France.
Armed men burst into the church in the small town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy and slit the throat of the Rev. Jacques Hamel as he was celebrating Mass before a smattering of mostly elderly Catholics on Tuesday (July 26).
The slain priest, who was in his mid-80s, was one of several people taken hostage by the two attackers, who authorities said had claimed to be from Daesh, the Arabic term for the Islamic State group.
One of the other hostages was reportedly in critical condition late Tuesday, and both assailants were shot and killed by security forces, French officials said.
Pope Francis expressed his “pain and horror over this absurd violence with the most radical condemnation of all forms of hatred and prayers for those affected” in a statement issued by the Vatican’s spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
“We are particularly shocked because this horrible violence took place in a Church, where God’s love is proclaimed, with the barbarous killing of a priest and the involvement of the faithful,” Lombardi said.
The attack comes one day before Francis leaves Rome to attend World Youth Day, a Catholic youth festival in Poland.
French President Francois Hollande said ISIS was behind the attack, and Prime Minister Manuel Valls called it “a barbaric attack on a church.”
“The whole of France and all Catholics are wounded. We will stand together,” he added.
It was the latest in a string of deadly terrorist attacks in Europe in the past couple of weeks, including the Bastille Day attack in the French city of Nice and killings in several places in Germany.
The imam of the mosque in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray said he was “appalled by the death of my friend,” according to the French newspaper Le Figaro.
“He gave his life for others,” the imam, Mohammed Karabila, was quoted as saying. “We are shocked here at the mosque.”
Hamel was an auxiliary priest in the parish and was filling in for the regular parish priest, who had just left on vacation, The New York Times reported.
He was ordained in 1958 and had celebrated his golden jubilee in 2008, according to the diocesan website.
The titular parish priest, the Rev. Auguste Moanda-Phuati, told the French broadcaster RTL that Hamel had refused to retire at age 75, as the church allows, because of the shortage of Catholic clergy in France.
“He was a courageous priest at his age. He still felt strong,” said Moanda-Phuati, who, according to French press reports, is Congolese.
The Islamic State group issued a statement saying the church attack was carried out by two “soldiers” from the group, which has claimed responsibility for inspiring a number of brutal terror attacks in France and elsewhere in Europe.
The killing signaled what could be a new phase in the battle against the group since it has not previously targeted Christian sites in Europe.
The Vatican has long been on a state of high alert for threats against the pope. And Christians in the Middle East have increasingly been subject to vicious attacks by Islamic radicals.
On social media, there was an oupouring of support with the hashtag #JeSuisCatholique and #JeSuisPrete ( I am Catholic, I am priest) in several languages.
The archbishop of Rouen, Monsignor Dominique Lebrun, confirmed the priest’s death.
“I cry out to God, with all men of good will. And I invite all non-believers to unite with this cry,” he said in a statement. “The Catholic Church has no other arms besides prayer and fraternity between men.”
Conservative Guinean prelate Cardinal Robert Sarah said he was praying for the victims and for France and asked in a tweet: “How many more dead before European governments understand the situation in which the West finds itself? How many more decapitated heads?”
Combien de morts pour que les gouvernements européens comprennent la situation où l'Occident se trouve ? Combien de têtes décapitées ? +RS
— Cardinal R. Sarah (@Card_R_Sarah) July 26, 2016
Chicago Archbishop Blase J. Cupich expressed his sorrow in a tweet:
“The Archdiocese of Chicago stands with the people of #Rouen, France; we offer our prayers for healing and peace in this time of great sorrow.”
The Archdiocese of Chicago stands with the people of #Rouen, France; we offer our prayers for healing and peace in this time of great sorrow
— Archbishop Cupich (@ArchbishopBlase) July 26, 2016
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Bishops Conference in the U.K. and Wales, joined Muslim leaders in a joint statement condemning the attack.
“We are deeply saddened and shocked by the brutal murder. To commit murder at a place where people gather in peace to worship adds another layer of depravity to the violence that we have witnessed over the past weeks.
“We pray for the courage to respond to all evil with truth, justice, and reconciliation.”
The Italian Bishops’ Conference said the attack had provoked “upset and concern” but urged people not to give in to “closure or revenge,” while an Italian regional political leader, Roberto Maroni, described the murdered priest as a “martyr of faith” and urged the pope to proclaim him a saint as soon as possible.
(Josephine McKenna is an RNS correspondent based in Rome)