VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis met with French President Francois Hollande at the Vatican just three weeks after an elderly priest was brutally murdered by Islamist militants in northern France.
The Vatican said the meeting on Wednesday (Aug. 17) was private and released no further details of what was discussed.
The two spoke for about 40 minutes through an interpreter, and Hollande later met with the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
The Rev. Jacques Hamel was killed by two young French terrorists who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group while he was celebrating Mass in his church in a small town near the city of Rouen.
Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean stormed 85-year-old Hamel’s church on July 26 and slit his throat in front of a small group of worshippers.
The attack was the first committed in the name of ISIS against a church in the West. Both Kermiche and Petitjean were shot dead by police.
After the murder, Hollande telephoned the pope and told him that “when a priest is attacked, all of France is wounded,” the Vatican said.
Speaking on his flight to Poland for World Youth Day last month, the pope thanked the French president “in a special way” for having contacted him like “a brother.”
A professed atheist, Hollande started his brief, private trip to Rome and the Vatican with a stop in San Luigi dei Francesi, the 16th-century church of the French community in the Italian capital, Reuters reported.
He stood in silence for about 10 minutes in front of a small side chapel that became a place of prayer and remembrance after the wave of Islamist attacks in Paris in November that killed 130 people.
To the left of the altar, near bowls where visitors leave notes to honor victims of terrorism, was a photograph of Hamel.
Talking with reporters outside the church before heading to the Vatican, Hollande said he would speak with Francis about the situation of Christians in the Middle East, where both leaders “have a vocation to protect Christians,” according to America magazine.
Hollande also said he wanted to thank the pope for his solidarity with France over the attacks that have left France reeling.
On July 14 a jihadist drove a large truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 85 people and leaving more than 430 injured.
Hollande held a special security meeting in Paris early Wednesday ahead of his trip to Rome to discuss ways of strengthening security measures at French schools when the new school year begins in September.
The extremist threat is still at a “very high level,” Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told The Associated Press.
The meeting was Hollande’s second visit to the Vatican; he had an official audience with Francis in 2014.
Relations between Hollande and the Holy See have experienced periods of tension, triggered by the Socialist leader’s failed attempt to appoint an openly gay diplomat as ambassador to the Vatican and France’s approval of same-sex marriage.
(Josephine McKenna covers the Vatican for RNS. This report contains material from Reuters)