Four men on trial over murder of French priest during Mass

Four alleged accomplices in the murder of an 85-year-old French priest go on trial in Paris on Monday after years of investigations into one of the most grisly jihadist attacks that have rocked France in recent years.

Four men on trial over murder of French priest during Mass
The grave of Father Jacques Hamel, killed in front of his congregation as he celebrated Mass. Photo by JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP

Father Jacques Hamel had his throat slit at the foot of the altar while celebrating mass on July 26th, 2016, at his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, a working-class suburb of Rouen in northwest France.

The two 19-year-old assailants, Adel Kermiche and Abdel-Malik Petitjean, also seriously injured one of the worshippers they took hostage before being shot and killed by police as they tried to leave the church.

They claimed in a video to be members of the Islamic State, which later called them its “soldiers” retaliating for France’s fight against jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

Hamel’s murder came as the country was on high alert over a series of jihadist attacks that began with a massacre at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and which have claimed more than 250 lives in total.

It also raised questions about the ability of French intelligence agencies to prevent such attacks, since Kermiche was wearing an electronic bracelet at the time after anti-terrorism police learned he had twice tried to go fight in Syria.

Prosecutors say that Jean-Philippe Jean Louis, Farid Khelil and Yassine Sebaihia knew about the attackers’ plan, with Jean Louis travelling with Petitjean to Turkey just weeks before the attack in an attempt to reach Syria.

They have denied the charges of conspiracy with terrorists, with their lawyers calling them “scapegoats.”

Rachid Kassim, a Frenchman who became a key IS recruiter and is the alleged instigator of the attack, has been charged with complicity in the killing by helping to choose the target and providing advice.

“Pounce on the infidels like a hungry lion pounces on its prey,” Kassim told them in audio and social media conversations discovered by investigators.

Police also say Kassim was behind the chilling murder of a police officer and his partner in front of their three-year-old son in Magnanville, a Paris suburb, just a few weeks before Hamel’s murder.

He is believed to have been killed in a coalition airstrike near Mosul, Iraq, where he lived, but is being tried in absentia since the death has not been confirmed.

Despite the absence of the main culprits, Hamel’s relatives and the victims are hoping to learn how the young men came to embrace the extremist ideology that led to the attack.

Guy Coponet, who was critically injured while being held hostage in the church, “wants to understand how these youths, barely out of adolescence, could commit such horrors,” his lawyer Mehana Mouhou told AFP.

Now 92, he plans to attend at least part of the hearings set for the next four weeks.

Catholic Church officials have launched the process to seek beatification for Hamel, a first step to canonisation or sainthood, which is currently being examined by the Vatican.

Pope Francis, who approved a fast-track process for Hamel, called him a “martyr” who died for his faith, which means there is no requirement of a proof of miracles in his case.

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French pensioner pushed out of 17th-floor window ‘may have been victim of anti-Semitic attack’

An 89-year-old man who was pushed out of his 17th-storey window by a neighbour may have been killed because he was Jewish, a prosecutor said on Friday, after several shocking anti-Semitic murders in France in recent years.

French pensioner pushed out of 17th-floor window 'may have been victim of anti-Semitic attack'

The victim’s body was found at the foot of his building in Lyon, southeast France, on May 17th and the 51-year-old neighbour was arrested. But investigators did not initially charge him with a racist crime.

Last Sunday, the BNVCA anti-Semitism watchdog group said it would seek to be a plaintiff in the case, citing its similarity with the 2017 murder of Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old thrown from her window in a case that sparked national outcry.

“After social media postings were provided to us, the prosector’s office has asked judges to consider the aggravating circumstance of an act committed because of the victim’s ethnicity, nationality, race or religion,” Lyon prosecutor Nicolas Jacquet told AFP.

He did not provide examples of the posts, but Gilles-William Goldnadel, a lawyer and commentator for CNews television, said on Wednesday on Twitter that the suspect had called out Goldnabel in messages, including one that told him to “remember your origins.”

“It’s no longer a question of telling us it’s the act of a mentally disturbed person. The truth of anti-Semitism must no longer be hidden,” Goldnadel wrote.

France has grappled with a sharp rise in violence targeting its roughly 500,000 Jews, the largest community in Europe, in addition to jihadist attacks in recent years.

The murder of Halimi drew particular outrage after the killer, who had shouted “Allahu akbar” (“God is greatest” in Arabic), avoided trial because a judge determined he was under the influence of drugs and not criminally responsible.

That prompted President Emmanuel Macron to seek a law change to ensure people face responsibility for violent crimes while under the influence of drugs, which was adopted in December 2021.

In 2018, 85-year-old Mireille Knoll was brutally stabbed in an attack by two men said to have been looking for “hidden treasures” in her Paris apartment.