Two armed men stormed a church in the town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, in the northern French region of Normandy, on Tuesday, killing a priest. Two nuns and two churchgoers were also taken hostage, including one person who was injured and remains in critical condition.
French president François Hollande blamed the self-proclaimed Islamic State for the attack, calling it a “cowardly assassination” committed by “two terrorists in the name of Daesh,” the Arabic acronym for IS, reported CNN. A counter-terrorism unit of the Paris prosecutor’s office is handling the investigation.
Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of nearby Rouen identified the priest as 86-year-old Father Jacques Hamel in a statement from Poland, where Pope Francis is visiting for a World Youth Day celebration. The Vatican also issued a statement expressing shock over the “barbarous killing”.
Amaq news agency, which operates in territory controlled by the Islamic State and many analysts believe is affiliated with the group, wrote on Tuesday that the group claimed that the two attackers were “soldiers” inspired by the group. French authorities said the two were killed by police who later arrived at the scene.
French police told Reuters that the priest was killed by a knife.
Authorities have identified one of the attackers, who had at one point attempted to cross into Syria before being turned back at the Turkish border, according to French media. In March 2016, he was ordered by a judge to wear an electronic tracking bracelet, BFM TV reported.
France has been especially targeted in recent terrorist attacks from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, with three incidents of mass violence coming in the past year and a half. And unlike the November shootings in Paris, when much of the public rallied around the Hollande government, recent incidents have provoked anger at authorities, as The Christian Science Monitor noted after the mid-July murders in Nice.
Polls conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Nice attacks, the Monitor wrote, showed that support for the current administration had fallen to 33 percent, with 88 percent saying the government was not doing enough to protect the public against such violence. Prime minister Manuel Valls was booed and heckled during a post-attack visit to Nice, and he riled tempers further with an admission that there likely “will be new innocent victims” despite the government’s measures to stop the attacks.
A state of emergency first declared after the November shootings in Paris – a decree that gives police vast new authority to search and detain without judicial approval – has been renewed four times. About half of the public supports extending the state of emergency, the Monitor reported. Watchdog groups, however, say that the state of emergency, imposed only a handful of times since the 1950s, undermines basic civil rights.
UN human rights specialists have echoed those concerns, citing a "lack of clarity and precision of several provisions of the state of emergency and surveillance laws."
The government has said it will step up airstrikes against IS targets in Syria and Iraq in response to recent terrorist attacks.