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Thousands gather to mourn murdered French priest

France paid its last respects on Tuesday to Father Jacques Hamel, the 85-year-old priest murdered by jihadists last week, at an emotional funeral held under tight security at Rouen cathedral in northern France.

Thousands gather to mourn murdered French priest
Photo: AFP
“As brutal and unfair and horrible as Jacques' death was, we have to look deep into our hearts to find the light,” said Rouen Archbishop Dominique Lebrun.
   
Some 2,000 mourners packed the soaring Gothic sanctuary, with hundreds more watching the ceremony, which began minutes after a heavy rainstorm, on a giant screen outside.
   
A section of pews in the 11th-century cathedral was filled by residents of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, the nearby industrial town where the two jihadists, both 19, slit Hamel's throat as he celebrated mass in an attack that shocked the country as well as the Catholic Church.
 
   
A red stole, symbolising Christ's martyrdom, was draped over a giant cross beside the altar, with the Rouen diocese explaining that “Father Hamel's death was similar to that of Christ, unjustly convicted and put to death.”
   
Another red stole was set atop a white priest's vestment lying over Hamel's coffin.
   
In a show of inter-faith solidarity, Muslims and Jews were among the mourners.
   
“It was a duty,” Hassan Houays, a Muslim maths teacher from Saint-Etienne, told AFP. “We are here so that we can get along together.”
   
Reconciliation was an overarching theme of the mass, which recalled Jesus urging his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
   
Hamel's sister Roselyne told the congregation: “Let us learn to live together. The world has so much need for hope.”
 
Thousands to turn out for funeral of slain French priestFather Hamel. Photo: AFP
 
'Never again'
 
Archbishop Lebrun said the Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities have “decided to come together to say 'never again'.”
   
Along with churches across France, the Rouen cathedral had on Sunday opened its doors to Muslims wishing to show their solidarity after the grisly attack, with the visitors paying a moving tribute to Hamel while denouncing radical Islam.
   
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, whose portfolio also includes inter-faith relations, led the political delegation to the mass.
   
As on Sunday, security was tight for Hamel's funeral, with around 20 riot police vans stationed around the cathedral and police closely checking mourners' bags and backpacks.
   
The church attack came less than two weeks after another attacker ploughed a 19-tonne truck into a massive crowd celebrating Bastille Day in the Riviera city of Nice, killing 84 people and wounding more than 300 others.
  
Hamel is to be buried in a ceremony attended only by close family members, at a location that has not been revealed.
   
The frail octogenarian became the latest victim of terror in France when the two jihadists stormed his church in the small Normandy town of 30,000 people.
   
 
Abdel Malik Petitjean and Adel Kermiche had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and both were shot dead by police after a tense hostage drama in which a worshipper was left seriously wounded. Three other hostages escaped unharmed.
   
The attack stunned France's religious communities, sparking fears of tensions in a country with a population of some five million Muslims, Europe's largest.
   
The series of jihadist attacks in France has raised tough questions about security failures, but also about the foreign funding of many mosques.
   
Cazeneuve said Monday that authorities have shut down around 20 mosques and prayer halls considered to be preaching radical Islam since December.
   
“There is no place … in France for those who call for and incite hatred in prayer halls or in mosques,” the minister said.

ABUSE

French priest jailed for sexual abuse

A French priest was Friday sentenced to five years, two without parole, for sexually assaulting four young female parishioners, one of whom was just nine when the offences started, and embezzling 100,000 euros to pay one of his victims.

French priest jailed for sexual abuse
Unrelated file photo. Photo: AFP

The trial was held behind closed doors at Colmar Criminal Court, in northeast France, which publicly announced the sentence late Friday.

The 60-year-old cleric, who will have to spend at least two years behind bars and be under restrictions for the rest of his term, could have faced up to 10 years in prison.

The priest will also have to undergo psychological treatment, which he has already started, according to his lawyers.

Under the judgement, he is forbidden from contacting his victims or any activity involving minors. He is also barred from staying in the Alsace region, where the offences were committed.

His sentence was lighter than that sought by the public prosecutor, who had asked for four years in prison followed by three years under a supervision order.

The trial was held behind closed doors at the request of three of the four victims, who were minors at the start of the offences, the youngest just nine.

The attacks, which continued after three of the victims were adults, took place between 2001 and 2006 and between 2011 and 2016.

The priest, who was remanded in custody for three months at the start of the case in September 2016, “bitterly regrets the crimes that he has acknowledged (…) and offers his apology to the victims and to people (…) injured by such intolerable acts,” his lawyer Thierry Moser said in a statement.

He had admitted to having diverted more than 100,000 euros in money destined for the Church and transferred it to one of the victims, then an adult, in exchange for sexual favours.

In total, he paid her more than 240,000 euros, including a portion of his personal wealth.

The victim, now 29, had been charged with “concealment of breach of trust” but was released after the court found there was insufficient evidence to prove she knew the source of the money.

France's Catholic Church has been roiled in recent years by claims against priests which have come to light in the wake of a global move by victims of abuse to come forward with evidence.

READ ALSO: France's top cardinal to go on trial over child abuse cover up

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