Two knife-wielding attackers who had pledged allegiance to ISIS, shouting “Allahu Akbar,” slit the throat of an 84-year-old priest and critically wounded at least one other person during a Tuesday morning terror attack on a Catholic church near the Normandy city of Rouen, officials said.
The terrorists were later shot and killed by police. ISIS’ Amaq news agency said the France attack was carried out by two Islamic State “soldiers,” Reuters reported.
“[ISIS] has declared war on us,” French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday. “We must fight this war by all means, while respecting the rule of law — what makes us a democracy.”
The priest, identified by Sky News as Jacques Hamel, was dead at the scene, and another person, possibly a nun, was clinging to life, Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said.
“Everyone knew him very well,” Claude-Albert Seguin, 68, said of Hamel. “He was very loved in the community and a kind man.”
The killing Tuesday inside the church, in the small northwestern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, “is obviously a drama for the Catholic community, for the Christian community,” Brandet told reporters.
The church was reportedly on a “hit list” discovered at the residence of a would-be ISIS attacker in April 2015, The Sun reported. Sid Ghlam was believed to be planning “imminent attacks” in France when investigators arrested him. Officials allegedly uncovered an arsenal of weapons and found that Ghlam was talking with someone in Syria who had ordered him to strike specific churches — including the one in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.
One of Tuesday’s attackers was on the radar of French police and had traveled to Turkey, said Mohammed Karabila, president of the Regional Council of the Muslim Faith for Haute-Normandie.
“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,” he told the AP.
Karabila said the attacker “went to Turkey and security services were alerted after this.”
The attackers, who were not immediately identified, entered through the back door of the church and took the priest, two nuns and two parishioners hostage during morning Mass, police said.
Police responded and later confirmed that the attackers had been “neutralized,” Sky News reported. Three hostages were rescued in good condition, while another was taken away on a stretcher, according to reports.
French prosecutors said one person had been detained in connection with the assault. That person, however, was not named and any possible role in the attack wasn’t revealed.
Hollande and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve were heading to the northwestern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray where the hostage-taking took place, Brandet said.
Brandet, speaking later on BFM TV, said the RAID special intervention force was searching the church and its perimeter for possible explosives. Terrorism investigators had been summoned, he said.
Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said in a statement Tuesday that the attack hits particularly hard “because this horrific violence took place in a church, a sacred place in which the love of God is announced, and the barbaric murder of a priest and the involvement of the faithful.”
Lombardi called the attack “more terrible news, that adds to a series of violence in these days that have left us upset, creating immense pain and worry.”
Pope Francis, Lombardi said, has expressed “pain and horror for this absurd violence, with the strongest condemnation for every form of hatred and prayer for those affected.”
France is currently on high alert after an attack in Nice on Bastille Day — July 14 — that killed 84 people and a string of deadly attacks last year claimed by ISIS that killed 147 victims.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.