Four alleged accomplices to the murder of an 85-year-old French priest are on trial in Paris on Monday after years of investigations into one of the most horrific jihadist attacks to rock France in recent years.
Father Jacques Hamel’s throat was cut at the bottom of the altar while celebrating Mass on July 26, 2016, at his church in Saint-Etienne-de-Rouvray, a working-class suburb of Rouen in northwestern France.
The attackers, 19-year-old Adel Kermiche and Abdelmalik Pettijin, also seriously wounded one of the worshipers who had taken them hostage before being shot and killed by the police as they tried to leave the church.
In a video they claimed to be members of the Islamic State, which they later called its “soldiers” in response to France’s fight against jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
Hamel’s killing came as the country was on high alert over a series of jihadist attacks that began with a massacre in the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 that killed more than 250 people in total.
It also raised questions about the ability of French intelligence services to prevent such attacks, as Kermiche was wearing an electronic bracelet at the time after anti-terror police learned that he had twice tried to go to fight in Syria.
Prosecutors say Jean-Philippe Jean-Louis, Farid Khalil and Yassin Sbayeh learned of the attackers’ plan, as Jean-Louis had traveled with Petitjan to Turkey just weeks before the attack in an attempt to reach Syria.
They denied the accusations of conspiring with terrorists, calling their lawyers a “scapegoat”.
“Passing on the infidels,” Rachid Kassem, the Frenchman who became a key ISIS recruiter and the alleged instigator of the attack, was accused of complicity in the killing by aiding in target selection and providing advice.
“Pass on the infidels like a hungry lion that swoops down on its prey,” Qassem told them in audio and social media conversations discovered by investigators.
Police also say Kassem was behind the horrific murder of a police officer and his companion in front of their three-year-old son in Magnanville, a suburb of Paris, just weeks before Hamel was murdered.
He is believed to have been killed in a coalition airstrike near Mosul, Iraq, where he was living, but is being tried in absentia as his death has not been confirmed.
Despite the absence of the main perpetrators, Hamel’s relatives and victims hope to learn how the young men came to adopt the extremist ideology that led to the attack.
His lawyer, Muhanna Moho, told AFP that Guy Cobone, who was seriously injured while being held hostage in the church, “wants to understand how these young people, barely reaching their teenage years, could commit such atrocities.”
Now 92, he plans to attend at least part of the scheduled hearings for the next four weeks.
Catholic Church officials launched the search for Hamel’s beatification, a first step toward canonization or sanctification, which is currently being examined by the Vatican.
Pope Francis, approving of Hamel’s fast track, called him a “martyr” who died for his faith, implying that there was no requirement for miracles to be proven in his case.