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French church hit by terror attack reopens

AFP , Sunday 2 Oct 2016
A police officer stands outside Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray church its re-opening in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray northwestern France, on October 2, 2016. (AFP PHOTO)

Some two months after Islamist militants murdered a French priest in cold blood while he was celebrating mass, the Normandy church he served for decades was to reopen its doors on Sunday.

Observances laden with symbolism will be aimed at cleansing a sanctuary profaned by the murder of 85-year-old Jacques Hamel as well as seeking inter-faith reconciliation.

The day's events, to be led by Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of the nearby city of Rouen, will be "oriented towards seeking forgiveness, reconciliation and peace," he told AFP.

A special mass will pay tribute to Hamel, who was at the altar of the old stone church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray when his throat was slit by two teenaged jihadists in the first such attack on a Christian church in Europe.

But first, clerics will perform a ritual to symbolically purify the church by sprinkling holy water through the sanctuary, Lebrun said.

A week after the July 26 attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group, Lebrun presided over Hamel's funeral mass at the Rouen cathedral attended by President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

In a show of inter-faith solidarity, Muslims and Jews were among the mourners on that occasion.

On Sunday, members of the Muslim community in Saint-Etienne, a town of some 27,000, will join a procession to the church for the mass.

"It will be a day of brotherhood ... I hope that all local people will be there, believers or not," Mohamed Karabila, representing the local mosque, told AFP.

A giant screen has been set up to allow people who cannot fit into the small church, whose nave dates from the 16th century, to follow the service outside.

Hamel's 19-year-old killers, Abdel Malik Petitjean and Adel Kermiche, had pledged allegiance to IS.

Both were shot dead by police after a tense hostage drama in which one worshipper, Guy Coponet, survived after being seriously wounded and left for dead. Three other hostages escaped unharmed.

The Christian weekly Famille Chretienne interviewed 87-year-old Coponet, who was stabbed in the neck, back and arm.

But the worst part of the ordeal, he said in the interview published last Wednesday, was being forced to film the gruesome killing.

"The two young killers... put a camera in my hands and said, 'Film, granddad.'... I can't get over it," Coponet said.

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 murder of the frail octogenarian came less than two weeks after the Bastille Day attack that claimed 86 lives when a Tunisian extremist rammed a truck into crowds on a popular promenade in the southern city of Nice.

The priest's murder and the Nice rampage were the latest in a series of Islamist militant attacks to rock France since the January 2015 massacre at the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly.

In six weeks, France will mark a year since the November 13, 2015, gun and bombing attacks on Paris killed 130 people and wounded hundreds of others.

*This story was edited by Ahram Online

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