WHILE prayers and condemnation flooded in from faith leaders after a priest was killed in an attack in a church in Rouen on Tuesday morning, police urged churches in the UK to review their security.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council confirmed that it had circulated its “protective security advice” to the estimated 47,000 churches in the UK.
The Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Neil Basu, said that although there was “no specific intelligence” of attacks against the Christian community in the UK, “following recent events in France, we are reiterating our protective security advice to Christian places of worship and have circulated specific advice. . . This is part of our ongoing work with faith organisations, as well as other sectors, to help ensure the safety and security of their staff, visitors and members.”
A spokesman for Church House confirmed the advice, which he said urged churches to be “alert not alarmed”. It comes as the Home Office announced £2.4 million in funding to bolster security in places of worship.
The Roman Catholic Church in France confirmed the death of Fr Jacques Hamel, aged 85, whose throat was reportedly cut during an attack by two men during mass in the parish of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, Rouen, Normandy. Two nuns and two other worshippers were held captive for 40 minutes.
The men were later shot and killed by police after a nun escaped and raised the alarm.
Three were wounded, including an 86-year-old whose throat was also cut, and who remained in a critical condition when the Church Times went to press, on Wednesday. One person has been arrested in connection with the attack.
The Vatican condemned the killing as “barbarous” on Tuesday, and “even more heinous” because it took place in a “sacred place in which the love of God is announced”. A Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, told journalists that Pope Francis shared the “pain and horror of this absurd violence”.
Pope Francis told reporters on the plane to Krakow, where he will begin a tour of Eastern Europe, that the world is in a war “of interests, for money, resources” but not a war of religion. “Religions don’t want war. The others want war,” he said. The Pope later told crowds outside Wawel Cathedral in the city to welcome refugees and “to alleviate the suffering while tirelessly working with wisdom and constancy for justice and peace”.
The Anglican Centre in Rome said in a statement that the attack was “profoundly shocking, but the murder of Christians — priest and lay alike — has become common, horribly common, over the past five years.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury tweeted in French and English: “Evil attacks the weakest, denies truth & love, is defeated through Jesus Christ. Pray for France, for victims, for their communities.”
Islamic State (IS, or Daesh) has claimed responsibility for the attack. The French President, François Hollande, said on his arrival in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray on Tuesday: “Daesh has declared war on us, we must fight this war by all means.”
He later met faith leaders, including the Paris Imam Dalil Boubakeur, who expressed his “deep grief” at the attack, and called for better security in places of worship.
Mr Hollande and the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, attended a Requiem Mass in Notre Dame Cathedral on Wednesday led by the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, who said in his address that hope must overcome hate.
“It’s this hope, at the heart of the test, which forever bars the path of despair, of vengeance, and of death. It’s this hope that animated the ministry of Father Jacques Hamel when he celebrated the eucharist during which he was savagely executed,” he said.
“It’s this hope which supports the Christians from the Orient when they must flee before persecution, and they choose to leave everything rather than renounce their faith. It’s this hope that lives in the heart of hundreds of thousands of young people gathered around Pope Francis in Krakow. It’s this same hope which permits us do not succumb to hate when we are taken by torment.”
The presidents of Churches in England Together have released a statement expressing shock at the attack: “That a man of peace who had dedicated his life to serving people could be killed during Mass is testimony to the evil that drives the actions of those who commit such a crime. We offer our deepest sympathy to his family, friends and parishioners.”
Sister Danielle, who escaped, told French radio that Fr Hamel was forced to kneel before his death, which was filmed by the attackers. She also said that the men preached a “sort of sermon” in Arabic, at the altar.
The Dean of Worcester, the Ven. Peter Atkinson, who had recently toured churches in Normandy, wrote: “What an end for someone who had been a priest for nearly sixty years: and yet where else would a priest choose to die but at the altar of God? An early church father said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and the church in France will be strengthened and the faith of Christians deepened by [his] sacrifice.”
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, expressed his “shock and sadness” in a statement signed by Muslim leaders, including the Head Imam, Qari Muhammad Asim: “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.”
The Archbishop of Rouen, the Most Revd Dominique Lebrun, who was at the World Youth Day in Poland, said: “I cry out to God with all men of goodwill. I would invite non-believers to join in the cry. The Catholic Church cannot take weapons other than those of prayer and brotherhood among men.”
The Bishop of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, the Rt Revd Pierre Whalon, tweeted: “France at war with Daesh, but the Church’s weapons are prayer, faithful presence, and love. We shall overcome.”
The Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, offered his “prayerful support and solidarity”, writing: “These are times of heightened tension if not anger in France and beyond but my prayer is that the French people will hold on to their dignity, which I witnessed when I visited Nice shortly after the recent tragedy there.”
In the UK, where a terrorist attack remains “highly likely”, the Prime Minister condemned the “sickening” murder. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with France and offer them every support we can,” she said. “But one thing I think we’re all absolutely clear on is that the terrorists will not prevail.”
The attackers are reported to have shouted “Allahu Akbar” on entering the building at about 10 a.m. One was wearing an explosive belt and carried three knives, a French prosecutor confirmed. The other was found carrying a backpack with a fake device.
One was identified on Wednesday as Adel Kermiche, aged 19, who was known to intelligence services. He was arrested in Turkey in 2015, and tagged after attempting to enter Syria for a second time. The identity of his accomplice, thought to be Abdel Malik P, has yet to be confirmed.