French police vehicles are parked where a 60-year-old French Catholic priest was murdered in Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvres, western France – Copyright AFP Sébastien SALOM-GOMIS
A Rwandan refugee suspected of causing a major fire that ravaged the cathedral in the French city of Nantes last year murdered a Catholic priest in western France on Monday, officials said.
The attack immediately sparked a new feud between the far right and the government over immigration less than a year before the presidential elections where the issue is expected to arise.
Father Olivier Maire, 60, was killed in the town of Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre in the Montfortian religious community where he resided and where the suspect was also housed.
Home Secretary Gerald Darmanin called the murder on Twitter “tragic” and said he was attending the scene.
A source close to the investigation, who requested anonymity, said a man had previously surrendered to the police in the commune of Mortagne-sur-Sèvre and said he had killed a priest. The man was already under judicial supervision for the fire at Nantes cathedral in July 2020, the source added.
The source added that the 60-year-old priest had been welcoming the man to his church for several months, the source said. His body was found in the religious community where he lived and he appears to have been killed by beatings although an autopsy is now being performed.
The man, named Emmanuel A. admitted to being behind the fire in Nantes cathedral which horrified France.
He was first placed in pre-trial detention before being released under judicial supervision. He was undergoing treatment in a psychiatric hospital but had left the establishment at the end of July.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who accused the government of being weak on immigration, sought to take hold of the incident, saying that in France “you can be an illegal migrant, fire in a cathedral, not to be expelled then to reoffend by assassinating a priest ”.
Darmanin immediately accused her of having “made a controversy without knowing the facts”, saying the man could not be expelled from France as long as he was under judicial supervision.
Immigration is expected to be a major issue when Le Pen challenges centrist President Emmanuel Macron for the presidency next year.
– “Deep dismay” –
France is on high alert for the risk of attacks on churches after a radical Islamist in Tunisia killed three people in a church in Nice at the end of October. However, the source close to the investigation pointed out that there appeared to be no connection to terror in the murder.
Macron “expressed all his sympathy” to his religious community of Montfortians, while Jean Castex expressed his “deep dismay” and “deep compassion,” their offices said.
The Nantes fire came 15 months after the devastating 2019 fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which raised questions about the security risks for other historic churches across France. The man had worked as a volunteer at the church.
While firefighters were able to contain the Nantes blaze in just two hours and save the main structure, its famous organ, which dated from 1621 and had survived the French Revolution and WWII bombing, was destroyed.
Priceless artifacts and paintings have also been lost, including a work by 19th-century artist Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin and stained-glass windows containing remains of 16th-century glass. Repairs are expected to take several years.