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France has long feared terror would strike its churches
Notre Dame is one place of worship that soldiers are asked to protect. Photo: AFP

France has long feared terror would strike its churches

Ben McPartland · 26 Jul 2016, 12:55

Published: 26 Jul 2016 12:55 GMT+02:00

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The hostage-taking and killing of a priest at a church in northern France on Tuesday is being treated as the latest jihadist terror attack in the country..

Speaking at the scene of the killing in the suburbs of the city of Rouen, President François Hollande described it as a "vile terror attack" and the killers "claimed to be from Isis". Then came the claim from Isis itself.

Even before Hollande spoke the fact counter-terrorist judges were swiftly put in charge of the investigation into Tuesday's "barbaric killing" suggested the government's fears that the country's churches could be targeted had been realized.

The threat against the country’s 45,000 places of Christian worship was made clear in April last year when it emerged a student had planned to gun down parishioners as they left a church to the south of Paris.

Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a 24-year-old computer sciences student, was according to police preparing to attack parishioners at churches in Villejuif, a suburb to the south of Paris.

He was arrested after having mistakenly shot himself in the foot. Police found a number of automatic weapons in his possession that they believe were to be used in his attack on "one or two churches".

Most worryingly for authorities and for the public, investigators found documents in his flat that showed he was in contact with an individual in Syria who is believed to have instructed him to attack churches.

"For jihadists, churches in France are legitimate targets," French terrorism specialist Francois-Bernard Huyghe told The Local. "They see the French as crusaders who have persecuted them and so think it is right to attack a church."

In the run up to Christmas last year the government took the step of warning the public that church services "could constitute targets of exceptional symbolic force".

Given the symbolic motives and the heightened threat level all over France, Huyghe says there is an undoubted danger that more attacks may follow.

"The more everyone talks about it, the more chance people will want to do the same thing. It's a vicious circle," he said.

'How can you honestly protect all of France's churches'

Following Sid Ahmed Ghlam's failed church attack in April 2015 French PM Manuel Valls said 178 places of Catholic worship had already been placed “under specific protection”.

"Protection of religious sites will be guaranteed, said Valls back in April 2015. "Christians and Catholics in France were targeted. They must be able to go to mass in perfect peace.”

The PM described Tuesday’s church attack in Rouen as “barbaric” adding that "the whole of France and all Catholics are wounded”.

Valls and his government have come in for severe criticism since the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice with opposition politicians saying that have not done enough to protect the French people.

Those accusations have been angrily rejected by a government insisting the country needs to remain united amid an unprecedented threat from jihadists at home and abroad.

But he and his government will now come under increased pressure to come up with a plan and personnel to protect church-goers across the country.

Story continues below…

But in the same way it was impossible to station soldiers outside every bar after the Paris massacre in November it appears there is only so much the government can do.

“How can you honestly protect all the churches in France,” said Huyghe.

“I live in a village of 400 people, you can’t put soldiers outside the church here.”

Some 10,000 soldiers were drafted on the streets of France to patrol "sensitive sights" in the aftermath of the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices and the Jewish supermarket.

Some 700 Jewish schools and synagogues and around 1,000 are now protected by the military as part of Operation Sentinelle.

But France simply just does not have the resources to station soldiers at its churches. The government will have to come up with another solution.

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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