France’s Catholic community has reacted with to Tuesday’s attack – in which two men stormed into a church in the town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy during mass and slit the throat of Father Jacques Hamel – by describing an overwhelming sense of shock.
“I didn’t know it was dangerous to be a priest in our century, in France today,” said Father Pierre Amar of the diocese of Versailles near Paris.
“I’m not scared, but it’s a new step in our life. A French priest has to recognise today that the danger of being a priest is an element of his life. Yesterday it was not the case. Our Christian brothers in the Middle East know that, every day. For us, it’s the first day.”
French religious leaders stand together
Speaking after talks with President François Hollande, the leaders of Christian, Muslim and other religions stood together to condemn the attack.
André Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, called on Catholics to “overcome hatred” and not to “enter the game” of the Islamic State, which he said “wants to set children of the same family upon each other.”
Dalil Boubakeur, the head of the Great Mosque in Paris, called the attack “blasphemous” and said it went “against all the teachings” of Islam.
They’ve also called to carry on dialogue between religions, which Father Amar says is already part of religious life in his city.
“After the attack, I received a message from the Muslim rector in my city, which was welcome, but he was also at my first mass as a parish priest when I arrived last year. So we have those kind of relations,” says Father Amar.
“So I’m not scared about the relations. We have had them, and we will have them in the future.”
Limits of interfaith dialogue
Some observers say responding to the attack in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray is not merely a matter of religions maintaining relations, but of recognising the political aims of such attacks.
“They [the IS] think fear will bring Western populations to not have any more confidence in their political regimes,” says Jean Maher, secretary general of the Coordination of Eastern Christians in Danger, who has worked with threatened Christians in Syria and Iraq.
“They think that more and more small attacks like this one, along with keeping up fear in Western countries, is in their own interest in the long term.”
Maher believes that more important than interfaith dialogue is to consider how the IS uses its violent ideology to continue provoking deadly attacks.
“The people who are carrying out the attacks – the suicide bombers, the killers – are real victims of the ideology of the other people who inciting them to do it,” he says.
“Unless [those fighting the IS] go with a new strategy on how to attack the people who are making and expanding this ideology of hate, they are going to have more attackers, suicide bombers and killers.”