French officials were on high alert Thursday after a knife-wielding assailant shouting “Allahu akbar” killed three churchgoers in the Mediterranean city of Nice, fueling an already bitter national debate about free speech, terrorism and the place of Islam in a fiercely secular democracy.
The attack, which took place inside Nice’s Notre-Dame Basilica, was the third in two months tied to suspected Islamist terrorists. A provincial high school teacher was beheaded earlier this month after showing his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
President Emmanuel Macron said Islam must be “reformed” in France.
The churchgoers were attacked at a moment of high stress for the nation. France entered its second nationwide lockdown Friday after a record resurgence in COVID-19 cases.
Officials in leading Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt quickly condemned the killings in France along with the stabbing of a guard outside the French Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Al-Azhar University, considered the voice of Islam in Egypt, called the attacks “unjustifiable” and “inconsistent with the tolerant teachings of Islam and all divine religions.”
Authorities late Thursday said the attacker, who was shot and seriously wounded in a struggle at a nearby bar, was a young Tunisian national named Ibrahim Issaoui, who was carrying a copy of the Koran at the time of the assault. Mr. Issaoui reportedly arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa on Sept. 20 and traveled to Paris three weeks ago.
A spokesman for Tunisia’s countermilitancy court told the Reuters news agency in Tunis that police there had not listed Mr. Issaoui as a suspected militant.
Another suspect was taken into custody on Friday morning, The Associated Press said. The suspect is a 47-year-old man believed to have been in contact with the attacker the night before the attack on the Notre Dame Basilica, according to a judicial official.
The official was not authorized to be publicly named, the AP reported.
President Trump and Democratic rival Joseph R. Biden condemned the attacks and expressed sympathy.
Saying the U.S. stands “with our oldest ally in this fight,” Mr. Trump tweeted, “These radical Islamic terrorist attacks must stop immediately. No country, France or otherwise, can long put up with it!”
Mr. Biden said he and wife Jill “are keeping the French people in our prayers following the horrific terror attack in Nice.” He said his administration “will work with our allies and partners to prevent extremist violence in all forms.”
A furious debate in France over free speech and religious rights has been mounting since the high school assault earlier this month. Security officials said France would be placed on its highest-level alert.
Mr. Macron visited Nice on Thursday and declared the incident an “Islamist terrorist attack.”
“If we are attacked once again, it is for the values which are ours: freedom, for the possibility on our soil to believe freely and not to give in to any spirit of terror,” he said after his visit.
“I say it with great clarity once again today: We won’t surrender anything.”
Officials said three people were attacked in the basilica before the first Mass of the day. A church sexton and a woman in her 70s who authorities said was “virtually beheaded” were killed inside the church, according to local reports.
The third victim was a 44-year-old woman who fled to a nearby cafe, where she was stabbed multiple times.
Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi told reporters that the assailant cried repeatedly, “Allahu akbar,” meaning “God is great,” as he carried out the attack and even after he was injured, arrested and taken to a hospital for treatment.
“The meaning of his gesture left no doubt,” Mr. Estrosi said. “Enough is enough. It’s time now for France to exonerate itself from the laws of peace in order to definitively wipe out Islamo-fascism from our territory.”
Tensions with Islamic world
The French government has staunchly defended free speech protections, which includes the right to publish depictions that often offend the Muslim community. Mr. Macron’s defense of the free speech laws and efforts to oversee the practice of French Muslims have led to mass protests in several Muslim-majority countries in recent days and calls to boycott French products.
With one of the largest Islamic minorities in Europe, France has long struggled to assimilate French Muslims into society and the economy. Many live in grim neighborhoods outside the main cities, have few career prospects and prove ready targets for anti-Western radical preachers.
Despite public outcry, Mr. Macron has refused to moderate his criticisms. He declared that “very clearly, it is France which is under attack.”
He spoke directly to the Catholic community in his remarks on the steps of the basilica and offered support “so that their religion can be exercised freely in our country. So that every religion can be practiced.”
Police have launched an investigation into the incident and have deployed thousands of soldiers to protect public places across the country. The latest attacks took place on the day when Muslims traditionally mark the birthday of Muhammad.
The French National Assembly held a moment of silence for the victims after it suspended debate on the latest round of COVID-19 restrictions.
The debate over Islam in Europe flared up after a period of relative calm. France had been rocked by a series of deadly incidents, including a terrorist attack on a Paris entertainment district that killed 128 people six years go, but the fervor seemed to subside as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
Religious authorities, Israel and a broad range of Muslim-majority countries, including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, were quick to condemn the Nice attack.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it rejects “such extremist acts that are inconsistent with all religions, human beliefs and common sense.”
“We affirm the importance of rejecting practices that generate hatred, violence and extremism,” it said.
Turkey’s foreign ministry offered condolences and said in a statement that “there can be no reason to excuse the killing of a human being and justify violence. It is obvious that those who carried out such a brutal attack in a sacred place of worship have never benefited from religious, human and moral values.”
The statement was issued amid tense scrutiny from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who earlier this week slammed Mr. Macron and his government over the continuing depictions of the Prophet Mohammad.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Tehran strongly condemned the “terrorist attack,” but he also alluded to the controversy in France over speech that is considered insulting or blasphemous to Muslims.
“This escalating vicious cycle — hate speech, provocations and violence — must be replaced by reason & sanity,” Mr. Zarif said in a post on Twitter. “We should recognize that radicalism only breeds more radicalism, and peace cannot be achieved with ugly provocations.”
Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which is considered to be the oldest Muslim organization in the U.S., also issued a powerful statement condemning “all forms of terrorism and extremism.”
“Such grievous attacks are completely against the teachings of Islam. Our religion does not permit terrorism or extremism under any circumstances and anyone who claims otherwise acts against the teachings of the Holy Quran and contrary to the noble character of the Holy Prophet of Islam,” he said.
“The fallout from this heinous act has further exacerbated the tensions between the Islamic world and the West and between Muslims living in France and the rest of society,” he said. “We must all join together to root out all forms of extremism and to encourage mutual understanding and tolerance.”
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.