Hollande: French people ‘under threat’
The “threat” of further terrorist attacks remained “high” in France and in Germany, French leader Francois Hollande said on Tuesday (26 July), after jihadist group Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the murder of a Roman Catholic priest.
“The threat is very high and remains very high … We are confronted with a group, Daesh, which has declared war on us”, Hollande said, using an alternative name for IS.
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“The people of France should know that they are under threat but they are not the only country, there is Germany and others”, he added.
He said that France, which has already conducted air strikes against IS in Syria, would “fight this war with all our means”, while respecting rule of law and democratic values.
He added that IS “want to divide us” but said that French and German people’s “strength lies in their solidarity”.
Speaking near the scene of the attack in the church of Saint-Etienne du Rouvray, near Rouen in northern France, he said he had met with some of the hostages involved in the incident and with local police.
He also said that he would address leaders of “all faiths” represented in France on Wednesday.
The Amaq news agency, a mouthpiece for IS, said a few hours after the killing: “The perpetrators of the Normandy church attack are soldiers of the Islamic State who carried out the attack in response to calls to target countries of the Crusader coalition”.
The word “Crusader” refers to attacks on the Middle East by Christian knights from Europe in Medieval times and, in modern times, by a US-led coalition that includes France.
IS called for further attacks against civilians from states in US-led group.
The latest incident occurred at around 9.45AM, when two men entered the French church, seized its 84-year old pastor, Jacques Hamel, and five hostages, then cut the priest’s throat.
Special police quickly surrounded the building and shot dead the attackers when they tried to leave.
One of the hostages, a nun named Sister Danielle, told the BFMTV broadcaster: “Everyone was shouting: ‘Stop! Stop! You don’t know what you’re doing!’. They forced him [Hamel] to his knees and obviously he wanted to defend himself and that’s when the drama began.
“They were busy with their knives. They were filming themselves preaching in Arabic in front of the altar”.
The attack quickly reverberated around the world. The White House said in a statement that “France and the United States share a commitment to protecting religious liberty for those of all faiths, and today's violence will not shake that commitment”.
Tributes also came in from EU capitals and from Muslim and Jewish groups in Europe.
The French Council of the Muslim Faith, a nationwide group, called the murder a “terrifying and horrifying act”.
It voiced solidarity with “all Catholics of France” and echoed Hollande in calling on “all leaders of different faiths to meet, exchange and fight against this hateful speech”, referring to Islamic radicalisation.
The Vatican highlighted the symbolic nature of the attack, saying “We are particularly shocked because this horrible violence took place in a church, in which God’s love is announced”.
Hollande’s leading adversary in next year’s presidential elections, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, said that “all those who have governed us for 30 years bear an immense responsibility” for the security lapse.
Former centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is hoping to run in next year’s vote, said France should be “merciless”.
He said “the legal quibbling, precautions and pretexts for insufficient action are not acceptable”. He also renewed calls for French police to detain without trial all Islamist suspects who are currently on a security watchlist as a precautionary measure.
The criticism on security grounds came after it emerged that one of the two attackers had been briefly jailed after trying to travel to Syria to join IS last year.
He was freed in March, but forced to wear an electronic tag, and placed on a terrorist register known as the “S-list”.
The murder is the fourth major Islamic terrorist incident in France since the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January last year. It comes after a series of attacks in Germany in the past week.
Also last year, French police intercepted an Algerian-born man who had planned to attack two churches in Paris suburbs using an automatic rifle and a pistol.
The incidents come amid mass scale arrivals of refugees and migrants to the EU from north Africa and the Middle East and the increasing popularity of far-right political parties in Europe.
But the EU’s joint police body, Europol, in a report out last week said “there is no evidence of a systematic problem” linking refugees to jihadist attacks.
One attacker in Germany, who murdered his estranged Polish girlfriend, was an Afghan asylum seeker. Another one, who blew himself up outside a music festival, was a Syrian asylum seeker.
German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere last week urged people not to have a "general suspicion" that refugees pose a security threat, despite "isolated cases" of violence.