President Francois Hollande sought Wednesday to head off divisions between France’s religious communities after the jihadist-claimed murder of a Catholic priest in his church, as calls mounted for tougher security measures.
Hollande gathered top religious leaders at his Elysee Palace offices, as a violence-weary France struggled to come to terms with the latest attack, just two weeks after the Bastille Day truck massacre that killed 84 people.
France’s large Catholic community was in shock after two men stormed into a church in the northern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray during morning mass and cut the 86-year-old priest’s throat at the altar.
One of the two attackers was identified as French jihadist Adel Kermiche, who was awaiting trial on terror charges and had been fitted with an electronic tag.
“We are stunned because we did not know it was dangerous to be a priest these days in France,” said Pierre Amar, a priest from Versailles near Paris.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned that the goal of the attack, claimed by Islamic State jihadists, was to “set the French people against each other, attack religion in order to start a war of religions”.
Following the meeting with Hollande, the head of France’s Muslim community — the largest in Europe — urged stepped-up security at places of worship.
“We deeply desire that our places of worship are the subject of greater (security) focus, a sustained focus,” said Dalil Boubakeur.
In the name of French Muslims, he voiced his “deep grief” at the attack which he described as a “blasphemous sacrilege which goes against all the teachings of our religion”.