PARIS — The nation of France has become a new sort of Ground Zero for Islamic terrorism's attack on the West. Over the past 30 months, images have spread around the world of both wanton and targeted terror on French soil: from the January 2015 shooting at the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices, to the coordinated assaults at Parisian cafés and the Bataclan concert hall later that year, to last summer's truck attack in Nice.
But there was another chapter in this drama, which happened one year ago today, that garnered far less attention abroad: the brutal execution of 85-year-old priest Jacques Hamel, stabbed to death by two Islamists during morning mass in his Normandy church.
The sole homicide was largely lost in the aftermath, just 12 days earlier, of the a self-proclaimed jihadist in a rented truck had run down 86 people as the summer resort city of Nice was celebrating Bastille Day, France's national holiday. Yes, the assault on Hamel may have happened in a place off the tourist map, and claimed just one victim — but it too deserves to be remembered.
The details of the assassination in the small northwestern town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray have been vividly documented. The 85-year-old priest was presiding over mass with just a handful of parishioners, when two men with prior links to jihadism stormed in the church, holding knives and screaming "You Christians are wiping us out!" They forced Hamel to his knees and stabbed him 18 times. The terror group ISIS later claimed responsibility for the attack.
La Croix —July 26, 2017
As far as symbolism goes, targeting a single priest in France was as chilling a signal from jihadists as killing cartoonists, young music fans or people celebrating the founding of the French Republic. It is believed to be the first time ISIS jihadists have targeted a church in Europe. France, also known as the Catholic Church's eldest daughter, was born more than 1,500 years ago, and its history was largely inseparable from that of the Catholic Church. And though it often escapes the secularists who dominate much of public discourse, France's soul is still profoundly Catholic.
Combating Islamic terrorism will require the commitment of all religions.
The objective was clearly not just to kill a single priest, but to try to set off an explicitly religious conflict within France, which has Europe's highest number of Muslims. French daily Le Figaro"s religious editor Jean-Marie Guénois spoke with Bernard Auvray, a 72-year-old who volunteers at Hamel's church, about the reaction in town. "Many things have changed over the past year," Auvray says. "There's still mistrust and acrimony for some, but a spirit of rapprochement now prevails between Muslims and Christians."
For the anniversary, Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, condemned the "cowardly killing" of the priest, the French Catholic daily La Croix reports. "Islam can never tolerate this kind of act in violation of divine law," Boubakeur said. Hamel's killing reminds us that combating Islamic terrorism will require the commitment of all religions, in big cities and small towns — in France, and beyond.