France aims to ease religious fears after church attack

Paris (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande sought Wednesday to head off religious tensions after the jihadist murder of a Catholic priest in his church, while his government tried to fend off criticism over security failings.

Hollande met top religious leaders as a violence-weary France mourned Tuesday's attack, which came less than two weeks after a truck ploughed through a crowd enjoying a Bastille Day fireworks display, killing 84 people in the southern city of Nice.

In a boost for the embattled government, a police internal affairs probe said the security contingent on the night of the Nice attack was "not undersized".

But questions raised over that attack only intensified when two men stormed into a church in the northern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray during morning mass Tuesday and slit the 86-year-old priest's throat at the altar.

Another man was left seriously injured in the attack.

One of the attackers was identified as French jihadist Adel Kermiche, 19, who was awaiting trial on terror charges and had been fitted with an electronic tag despite calls from the prosecutor for him not to be released.

Dalil Boubakeur, the head of France's Muslim community described the attack as a "blasphemous sacrilege which goes against all the teachings of our religion".

Residents of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray were struggling to come to terms with the bloodshed in their small town, so far from France's tourist hubs.

They made their way to a makeshift memorial to lay flowers, candles and messages of peace -- a ritual that has become chillingly familiar from Brussels and Paris to Nice and Munich, all cities that have been struck by attackers inspired by the Islamic State group.

"This is a super anonymous place," said Moustapha Doucene, a neighbour of Kermiche, adding he expected terror attacks "in the big cities."

- 'A war of religions' -

Kermiche and his accomplice entered the centuries-old stone church of Saint Etienne, taking hostage the priest, Jacques Hamel, three nuns and two worshippers.

One nun managed to flee and alert police.

The two jihadists were gunned down by police after leaving the church and three other hostages were unharmed.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned that the goal of the attack, claimed by Islamic State jihadists, was to "set the French people against each other, attack religion in order to start a war of religions".

In an editorial, Le Monde newspaper recalled a key strategy of IS, to eradicate the so-called "grey zone" in which Muslims live peacefully alongside other religions, making it so uncomfortable for them to do so that they are forced to join ranks with the jihadists.

"France comes under attack because it is made up of one of the biggest Muslim communities in Europe. The jihadists' aim is to provoke violent revenge attacks that will create a religious war in our country," wrote the daily.

Pope Francis said "the world is at war" but argued that religion was not the cause.

"When I speak of war I speak of wars over interests, money, resources, not religion. All religions want peace, it's the others who want war."

- Big beach bags banned -

Hollande also met his defence and security chiefs, who tried to find new ways to reassure a jittery population as his government comes under fire from the opposition over the repeated attacks, some nine months ahead of a presidential election.

Defence Minister Jean Yves Le Drian said the 10,000-member Sentinelle military force -- deployed after an attack in January 2015 -- would be spread out more in areas outside Paris.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve vowed that events taking place across the country over the summer months, in which the majority of French people flock to holiday spots, would take place under tight security.

He said local government officials should cancel events "if conditions do not allow for optimal security".

The Riviera city of Cannes, just down the coast from Nice, banned sunseekers from bringing large bags to the beach "which could conceal ... weapons or explosive substances."

- 'Where are the police?' -

The government, already under pressure after the Nice attack, faced more questions over security weaknesses after it emerged one of the church attackers was known to anti-terror investigators.

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Kermiche twice tried to travel to Syria under a false identity. After his latest arrest in Turkey in May 2015, he was held in custody until March this year when he was released and fitted with the electronic bracelet.

Annie Geslin, who worked with Kermiche's mother for many years, told AFP "he was the youngest child and had psychological problems but I don't know more than that."

Mohammed Karabila, who heads the regional council of Muslim worship for Haute Normandie, where the church attack took place, asked simply: "How could a person wearing an electronic bracelet carry out an attack? Where are the police?"

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