Killing of Jacques Hamel by men claiming to be Isis militants is a particular challenge to Pope Francis and other church leaders
By Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome, Tuesday 26 July 2016
Every year, the Vatican’s Agenzia Fides, which tracks the work of Catholic missionaries around the world, releases a grim list of how many of its own have been killed while serving the church. Last year, 13 priests were among the dead, most of whom were killed in the course of violent robberies, and nearly 400 church-affiliated workers have been murdered since 2000.
But even for a church that has grown accustomed to a certain amount of violence in its bloody history, including priests murdered by government-sanctioned death squads, the brutal murder of an elderly French priest, Jacques Hamel, at the hands of two men claiming to be Islamic State militants represents a particular challenge to Pope Francis and other church leaders.
The apparently targeted killing in Normandy will be seen as reinforcing the pontiff’s deep concern about Christian persecution. Last year he called the murder of Christians in the Middle East by Isis a “form of genocide” and obliquely condemned terrorists who use religion to “profane the name of God and use it to justify their unprecedented violence”. It could also make it more difficult for Francis to counter conservative voices within the church who have been critical of his insistence that Islam is a peaceful religion.
Father Jacques Hamel: ‘A good priest … who did his job to the very end’
Vatican watchers noted on Tuesday that in the first remarks about the attack issued by Francis’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, the violence committed in France was denounced as “absurd”. It was similar language the church used to describe the massacre in Nice – “senseless” – and the murder of four Catholic nuns in Yemen by Isis, which the pope called “diabolical”.
“The use of the word ‘absurd’ – as in, it makes no sense, and that all violence is ultimately absurd – is noteworthy. There is always a difficulty looking at a religiously motivated attack, because is it religious, or is it an ideology, or is it something much more irrational? I think that is what the pope is getting at there,” said Austen Ivereigh, who has written a biography of Pope Francis. “He seems to be saying it is a desperate act that has no meaning beyond itself.”
Ivereigh expects Francis to address the violence when he travels to Poland this week, where he will also visit Auschwitz. “We are now clearly entering into an era of sporadic violence at the heart of our nations and I think that is going to pose enormous challenges for everyone – including the church and all institutions,” Ivereigh said.
Until now, violence against clergy by jihadis has largely been limited to areas already in conflict. In March, when Isis in Yemen murdered four nuns and 12 others, militants also kidnapped a priest named Tom Uzhunnalil, who has not been heard from since. Another priest, an Italian Jesuit named Paolo Dall’Oglio, was kidnapped by Isis in Syria in 2013.
In this way, the attack in France, a country that is not besieged by war, opens a new frontier for the church and confirms priests are now a target for extremists. It is not the first time terrorists have sought to attack the church in France. In 2015, police discovered an Algerian-born jihadi was preparing to attack two churches in Villejuif, a suburb south of Paris, with a Kalashnikov and a revolver. But it is the first time they have succeeded. (The Villejuif attempt was derailed after the perpetrator accidentally shot himself in the leg and was discovered by police.)
“Even if the details are a little fluid, what this confirms in the big picture is that for Islamic militants generally, the Catholic church is a target, which is not exactly a new blinding insight,” said John Allen, a Vatican expert and associate editor of the Catholic news site, Crux.
Normandy church attack: nun who was taken hostage speaks out about death of priest
While it is fair to debate whether such murders in France should be viewed any differently to similar atrocities in Syria or Iraq, Allen said it would certainly increase the pressure on the church to take a tougher line in defence of its own clergy. Francis has already said there were more Christian martyrs today than in the early days of the church.
“When you see Christian victims on the side of terror, you are going to see members of the church who will be interested in a more aggressive military response,” Allen said.
For now, there are few steps the church can take that could practically minimise the risk facing priests and other religious officials whose very job is to make themselves accessible to the public. “The simple fact is they are vulnerable and I’m not sure really that there is anything to do about it,” said Ivereigh. “It is tragic but inevitable that priests will be killed, sometimes, by disturbed people and that is something most priests know and accept.”