French religious leaders call for unity in wake of Normandy attack

Security forces in France are again in the spotlight

France, attack, Normandy, terrorism, ISIS, church, priest, Francois Hollande

French riot police guards the street to access the church where an hostage taking left a priest dead in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy | Image: Francois Mori / AP/Press Association Images

The main religious leaders in France have called for unity and solidarity in the wake of an attack on a church in Normandy.

French President Francois Hollande has met with the heads of all France's major religions.

The leaders have also asked President Hollande for extra security.

He is trying to calm tensions sparked by the murder of an elderly priest yesterday that was claimed in the name of Islamic fundamentalists ISIS.

The Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, called on Catholics to "overcome hatred that comes in their heart" and not to "enter the game" of the Islamic State group that "wants to set children of the same family in opposition to each other".

While Paris Imam Dalil Boubakeur said France's Muslims must push for a better training of Muslim clerics.

He also called for a reform of French Muslim institutions to be on the agenda.

Security forces in France are again in the spotlight after it emerged one of the men behind the murder was wearing an electronic tag.

It is now known that Adel Kermiche twice attempted to travel to Syria and was under house arrest.

The tag was turned off for a few hours each morning to allow him to leave home - and it was in this time that Kermiche and another attacker slit 86-year-old Father Jacques Hamel's throat.

Both men were shot dead by police but no details of the second man have yet emerged.

A third person, believed to be a 17-year-old male, remains in custody after his arrest in connection with the attack at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray church.

The killing - just two weeks after 84 people died in the Bastille Day truck horror - is the latest of more than a dozen attacks attributed to Islamic extremists in France over the last two years.

French authorities are again trying to establish whether these attackers were part of a network after Islamic State claimed its "soldiers" carried out the deadly assault.

"It's a horror"

A neighbour of Kermiche in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, who gave his name only as Redwan, said he had known who was responsible as soon as he heard about the attack.

"I was told that an attack occurred and I knew it was him, I was sure," he said.

"He said to us 'Yes, I tried (to go to Syria).' Then we tried to bring him to his senses, every time we did it and every time he was bringing in a verse from the Quran, he was inventing things."

An 86-year-old worshipper is also in a serious condition in hospital after suffering knife wounds during the hour-long siege in which Father Hamel, three nuns and two churchgoers were taken hostage.

The alarm was raised after one of the nuns escaped. The pair both carried fake bombs and one a handgun.

They charged out of the church shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest), using the nuns as human shields, before being shot dead.

A nun identified as Sister Danielle, who witnessed the killing first hand, told French TV: "They forced him to his knees. He wanted to defend himself. And that's when the tragedy happened."

"They recorded themselves. They did a sort of sermon around the altar in Arabic. It's a horror."

She said of her dead colleague: "He was an extraordinary priest. He was a wonderful, kind man."

Visiting the scene of the atrocity, French President Francois Hollande described it as a "vile terrorist attack" and vowed to fight the IS extremists "using all means possible".
Anti-terror chiefs have been appointed to take charge of the investigation.

Despite criticism over lax security President Hollande says the terrorists will be defeated.

French media have also reported that the church targeted was one of several Catholic sites on the hit-list of a 24-year-old Algerian student.

Sid Ahled Ghlam was arrested last year on suspicion of murdering a mother-of-one during a botched attempt to attack a church in Villejuif.

He was sent by Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who directed a cell which carried out the November 13th attacks in Paris and March 22nd attacks in Brussels that killed a total of 162 people.