Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, France, Oct 2 – Some two months after jihadists murdered a French priest in cold blood while he was celebrating mass, the Normandy church he served for decades reopened its doors on Sunday.
Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of the nearby city of Rouen solemnly pushed open the great wooden doors of the old stone church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, letting in several hundred worshippers.
As the congregation chanted “Alleluia”, Lebrun sprinkled holy water on the walls, the altar, the floor and the worshippers themselves in a ritual cleansing of the sanctuary profaned by the murder.
The priest, 85-year-old Jacques Hamel, died at the wooden altar while celebrating mass when two 19-year-old assailants slit his throat on July 26.
“They killed Father Hamel but they didn’t kill the Catholic faith… they didn’t kill love,” Lebrun told reporters before the mass. “Love continues on its way.”
Sister Danielle, who raised the alarm the day of the attack, read a prayer, while 87-year-old parishioner Guy Coponet, who survived several stab wounds at the hands of the jihadists, also performed a reading.
Coinciding with Sunday’s observances, Vatican sources travelling with Pope Francis in Azerbaijan said the pontiff was prepared to waive the usual waiting period before launching a process of beatification for Hamel.
“We must gather eyewitness testimony and see whether all the factors are in place,” the pontiff said as he headed back to Rome aboard the papal plane.
“It is very important because the testimonies are still fresh in the memory of people who lived through (the attack),” he added.
Normally the Vatican observes a five-year “cooling off” period after the death of a candidate for sainthood before launching the process for beatification, the first step on the way.
Worshippers broke out in applause when Lebrun announced the news during the mass.
Several representatives of the town’s Muslim community were in the front pew.
Mohamed Karabila, representing the local mosque, told AFP earlier that Sunday would be “a day of brotherhood” for Saint-Etienne, a working-class town of some 27,000 people.
The mosque’s treasurer Aissa Habbani said: “We are against everything that happened. It affects us very much as well.”
The jihadist attack, the first of its kind on a Christian church in Europe, stunned France’s religious communities, sparking fears of tensions in a country with a population of some five million Muslims, the continent’s largest.
– ‘New stage of healing’ –
The city’s mayor, Hubert Wulfranc, told reporters before Sunday’s mass: “It’s a new stage in the healing, in the convalescence.”
A week after the murder claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group, Archbishop 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.
Hamel’s 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 Coponet survived after being left for dead. Three other hostages escaped unharmed.
Coponet, in a recent interview with the Christian weekly Famille Chretienne, said the worst part of the ordeal 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 murder of the frail octogenarian came less than two weeks after the July 14 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 jihadist 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.
Two people have been charged over Hamel’s murder, Petitjean’s 30-year-old Farid K., and a 21-year-old man arrested near southwestern Toulouse.
Separately, 20-year-old Jean-Philippe J. was charged with trying to travel to Syria with Petitjean.