- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A pair of Islamic State-linked terrorists slit a priest’s throat at the altar of a Catholic church in northern France on Tuesday before videotaping a “sermon” in Arabic to mark the ritualistic slaughter — the fourth attack in a week by the terrorist group, which since June has claimed responsibility for killing more than 600 people in several countries, including the U.S.

The killing of the Rev. Jacques Hamel, 85, as he celebrated Mass at a small church near Rouen, marked the first time that the Iraq/Syria-based group targeted a church in the West, sending a shudder through religious communities that have highlighted the militants’ persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

“I’m not aware of another one in the West. However, their targeting of Christianity and looking at this as a religious war is not new,” said Travis Weber, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Congressional Republicans lauded the Obama administration in March for saying Islamic State fighters were responsible for genocide against Christians and other religious minorities, though they felt that assessment was long overdue. On Tuesday, they feared the church attack in Normandy presaged a wave of new attacks as extremists lash out against the West.

“The president needs to ensure that Americans are safe and that such attacks against Christians will not happen in the U.S.,” said Rep. Vern Buchanan, Florida Republican. “We are at war with radical Islam and ISIS terrorists.”

The terrorists Tuesday took five hostages in the church and severely wounded a worshipper before they were shot dead by police. The Islamic State later claimed responsibility via its Amaq news agency.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis condemned “every form of hatred” and prayed for the victims.

“We are particularly shocked because this horrible violence took place in a church, in which God’s love is announced, with the barbarous killing of a priest and the involvement of the faithful,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a series of recent attacks:

On Sunday, a 27-year-old Syrian man detonated explosives outside a music festival in Bavaria, injuring 15 people.

On Saturday, two suicide bombers killed at least 80 people in Kabul, Afghanistan.

On July 20, an ax-wielding Afghan teenager injured five passengers on a train near Wurzburg, Germany.

The assault in the church raised new questions about France’s ability to repel terrorists. On July 14, a 37-year-old Tunisian man drove a truck through a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, killing 85, and armed assailants in November killed 130 people at restaurants, the Bataclan nightclub and outside a stadium in Paris.

A police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal details about the investigation, said one of Tuesday’s attackers — identified as 19-year-old Adel Kermiche — was known to police because he had been stopped in an attempt to travel to Syria.

Kermiche was under police supervision and wore an electronic bracelet to monitor his movements, but it was deactivated for a few hours every morning, corresponding with the time of the attack.

A French nun who was in the church Tuesday said the priest was forced to the ground before the jihadis slit his throat.

The nun, identified as Sister Danielle, told BFM television: “They forced him to his knees. He wanted to defend himself. And that’s when the tragedy happened.”

She said the attackers recorded themselves. “They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic. It’s a horror.”

After the attack, police rescued three other people inside the church — including a second nun — in the small northwestern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, said Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet.

The Police Nationale asked people on Twitter to avoid the perimeter around the church and not to interfere with police.

Archbishop Dominque Lebrun of Rouen said he would travel back to his archdiocese in Poland to comfort the parish.

“The only weapons which the Catholic Church can take up are prayer and fraternity among peoples,” the archbishop said.

French President Francois Hollande, arriving at the scene of the crime, struck a more combative tone. He called the incident a “vile terrorist attack” and one more sign that France is at war with the Islamic State group.

“We must lead this war with all our means,” he said, adding that he was calling a meeting Wednesday of representatives of all religions.

Meanwhile, the White House offered its condolences to parishioners affected by the attack and said it stood in solidarity with France.

“France and the United States share a commitment to protecting religious liberty for those of all faiths, and today’s violence will not shake that commitment,” said deputy press secretary Eric Schultz.

Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who is establishing himself as a vocal defense hawk, said the administration isn’t doing enough.

“This attack joins a lengthening string of jihadist attacks around the world,” he said, “and it should steel our collective resolve to defeat ISIS abroad before they attack us at home and put an end to this madness.”

Bradford Richardson contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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