Two knife-wielding attackers interrupted a church service in France, forced the 85-year-old priest to his knees and slit his throat yesterday, an attack president François Hollande labelled a “cowardly assassination”.
The pair also took hostages, gravely injuring one of the few worshippers present, before being shot to death by police.
A nun who escaped the attack said she saw the attackers video themselves and “give a sermon in Arabic” around the altar at the church near Rouen in Normandy.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, the first in a church in the West. A church outside Paris was targeted last year, but the attack was never carried out.
One of the extremists has been identified as Adel Kermiche, 19, a local youth whose parents flagged his radical behaviour to authorities.
Family friend Jonathan Sacarabany said Kermiche grew up in a housing project in the small north-western town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, the town where the attack took place.
“To attack a church, kill a priest, is to profane the republic”François Hollande
The friend said Kermiche had a sister who is a doctor in nearby Rouen, and a brother. Their mother is a professor. The family alerted authorities to Kermiche’s radicalism to try to stop him from going to Syria, Mr Sacarabany said.
Kermiche was arrested trying to go to Syria and was put under judicial supervision upon his return, with an electronic bracelet that was deactivated for five hours a day, allowing him to leave home without surveillance. He was required to check in with police once a day.
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor Francois Molins said Kermiche was arrested in Germany in March 2015 trying to join extremists in Syria using his brother’s ID, and then was arrested in Turkey two months later using a cousin’s ID.
Mr Molins said the person who was injured in the attack is no longer in a life-threatening condition.
Police rescued three other people inside the church, including a second nun said interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet.
A statement published by the IS-affiliated Amaq news agency said the attack was carried out by “two soldiers of the Islamic State” who acted in response to calls to target nations in the US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria.
The statement echoed claims in other recent attacks in France and neighbouring Germany. It repeated its threat to Western “crusaders”.
One nun who was in the church said the priest was forced to the ground before his throat was slit. The nun, identified as Sister Danielle, told BFM television: “They forced him to his knees. He wanted to defend himself. And that’s when the tragedy happened.”
She said the attackers recorded themselves, adding: “They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic.
“It’s a horror.”
Dominique Lebrun, the archbishop of Rouen, confirmed the death of Rev Jacques Hamel, 85.
In a statement, Rev Lebrun said: “I cry out to God, with all men of good will. And I invite all non-believers to unite with this cry.
“The Catholic Church has no other arms besides prayer and fraternity between men.”
The priest “was always ready to help,” said Rouen diocese official Philippe Mahut. He said Rev Hamel had been at the church for the past decade.
“Sometimes he was running all around, and his desire was to spread a message for which he consecrated his life,” Mr Mahut said. “And he certainly didn’t think that consecrating his life would mean for him to die while celebrating a Mass, which is a message of love.”
Mr Hollande called the incident a “vile terrorist attack” and one more sign that France is at war with IS, which has claimed responsibility for a string of recent attacks on France, plus two in Germany.
In a televised address to the nation, Mr Hollande said: “To attack a church, kill a priest, is to profane the republic.”
“We will win this war,” he said, adding that he was calling a meeting later today of representatives of all religions.
The town mayor, Hubert Wulfranc, in tears, denounced the “barbarism” and, breaking down, pleaded: “Let us together be the last to cry.”
Mohammed Karabila, head of the Regional Council of the Muslim Faith for Haute-Normandie, said one of the attackers was known to French security services.
He said: “The person who committed this odious act is known and he has been followed by the police for at least one and a half years. He went to Turkey and security services were alerted after this.”
The Pope condemned the attack in the strongest terms.
Vatican spokesman, the Rev Federico Lombardi, said in a statement that Pope Francis had expressed his “pain and horror for this absurd violence, with the strongest condemnation for every form of hatred and prayer for those affected”.
France is currently on high alert and under a state of emergency after an attack in the southern city of Nice on Bastille Day, 14 July, that killed 84 people that was claimed by IS, as well as a series of attacks last year that killed 147 others around Paris.
Islamic State extremists have urged followers to attack French churches.
French authorities increased security at churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship after attacks in Paris last year, but ensuring constant, blanket security is difficult in a country with a church in every town and village.