Two attackers slit the throat of an 86-year-old priest and critically injured another parishioner during a hostage siege at a Normandy church's Tuesday morning mass before they were shot dead by French police.
Elite French police unit BRI was rushed to the small north western town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray after the two attackers, who have since been dubbed "soldiers of the Islamic State" by ISIS news agency Aamaq, took five hostages during the normal church service, including two nuns and 86-year-old Father Jacques Hamel, who died after his throat was slit.
A parishioner is currently in critical condition following the attacks that occurred just before 10 a.m., but Interior Ministry spokesperson Pierre-Henri Brandet announced that the other three hostages are safe. Only five people had attended the mass that morning.
A nun who reportedly escaped called the police after the two attackers entered the church from the back doors, armed with knives.
France has been in a state of emergency since ISIS-linked attacks at the Bataclan theater in Paris, and was approved for a 6-month extension following the Bastille Day massacre in Nice, Reuters reported.
According to la Tribune de Geneve, one of the two attackers was a 19-year-old French national. He was arrested in a Geneva airport last year, after he was kicked out of Turkey.
A local Muslim leader Mohammed Karabila added, "the person that did this odious act is known, and he has been followed by the police for at least a year and a half" after security was alerted by his visit to Turkey, the Associated Press reported.
French President Francois Hollande, who arrived to Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray hours after the attack, tweeted: "I offer to the families of the victims, along with all Catholics of France, the solidarity and compassion of the nation."
J'adresse aux familles des victimes ainsi qu’à l’ensemble des catholiques de France, la solidarité et la compassion de la Nation.— François Hollande (@fhollande) July 26, 2016
According to Vatican spokesperson Reverend Federico Lombardi, Pope Francis expressed the "pain and horror for this absurd violence, with the strongest condemnation for every form of hatred and prayer for those affected," the Associated Press reported.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy tweeted: "It is with deep sadness that I acknowledge the despicable terrorist attack in the #SaintEtienneduRouvray church."
C’est avec une profonde tristesse que je prends connaissance de l’ignoble attaque terroriste perpétrée à l’église de #SaintEtienneDuRouvray— Nicolas Sarkozy (@NicolasSarkozy) July 26, 2016
Karabila, who said he often coordinated open discussions with Hamel following ISIS attacks, said he is "appalled by the death of my friend," and extends his prayers to Hamel's family and the Catholic community.
"This is someone who has given his life to others," Karabila said, according to Le Figaro. "We are dumbfounded at the Mosque."
Father Jacques Hamel was born in 1930, in nearby town Darnetal. In 1958, he was ordained, and celebrated his 50 years of service, known as the golden jubilee, in 2008.
The Saint-Etienne parish church is one of only two churches in the small town, where the Catholic community is very tight-knit. The church was a pillar in the community, and often hosted family events.
"We could not imagine it could happen this way," Moanda said.
Locals who recall family members baptized by Father Hamel mourned his death on Twitter.
Le prêtre qui a été égorgé c'est celui qui a baptisé un de mes petits cousins récemment...— toto rina (@JulietteSeradi) July 26, 2016
Non vraiment choqué déçu prêtre qui a baptisé ma soeur et ma mere qui décède alors qu'il avais rien demandé...— ✨ Agon ✨ (@DamssGmS) July 26, 2016