France has long feared terror would strike its churches

France's long-standing fears that its churches would be targeted by terrorists were realized on Tuesday. But can the government do anything to protect its 45,000 places of worship?

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

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.

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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks

US Vice President Kamala Harris and French Prime Minister Jean Castex laid wreaths at a Paris cafe and France's national football stadium Saturday six years since deadly terror attacks that left 130 people dead.

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks
US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff lay flowers after ceremonies at Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, at which 130 people were killed during the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/POOL/AFP

The attacks by three separate teams of Islamic State group jihadists on the night of November 13, 2015 were the worst in France since World War II.

Gunmen mowed down 129 people in front of cafes and at a concert hall in the capital, while a bus driver was killed after suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the stadium in its suburbs.

Harris, wrapping up a four-day trip to France, placed a bouquet of white flowers in front of a plaque honouring the victims outside a Paris cafe.

Castex attended a minute of silence at the Stade de France football stadium, along with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, before laying wreaths at the sites of the other attacks inside Paris.

In front of the Bataclan concert hall, survivors and relatives of the victims listened to someone read out the names of each of the 90 people killed during a concert there six years ago.

Public commemorations of the tragedy were called off last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year we weren’t allowed to come and we all found it really tough,” said Bruno Poncet, who made it out alive of the Bataclan.

But he said the start of a trial over the attacks in September meant that those attending the commemoration this year felt more united.

‘Overcome it all’

“We’ve really bonded thanks to the trial,” he said. “During previous commemorations, we’d spot each other from afar without really daring to speak to each other. We were really shy. But standing up in court has really changed everything.”

The marathon trial, the biggest in France’s modern legal history, is expected to last until May 2022.

Twenty defendants are facing sentences of up to life in prison, including the sole attacker who was not gunned down by police, Salah Abdeslam, a French-Moroccan national who was captured in Brussels. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia.

Poncet said he felt it was crucial that he attend the hearings. “I can’t possibly not. It’s our lives that are being discussed in that room, and it’s important to come to support the others and to try to overcome it all.”

Survivors have taken to the witness stand to recount the horror of the attacks, but also to describe life afterwards.

Several said they had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, grappling with survivor’s guilt, or even feeling alienated from the rest of society.

Saturday’s commemorations are to wrap up with a minute of silence at the Stade de France in the evening before the kick-off for a game between France and Kazakhstan.

It was during a football match between France and Germany that three suicide bombers blew themselves up in 2015.

Then-French president Francois Hollande was one of the 80,000 people in the crowd, before he was discreetly whisked away to avoid triggering mass panic.