French bishops ordered a nationwide toll of the bells after three people were killed in Nice basilica in a brutal terrorist attack.
The toll was sounded from every church in France after three people were hacked to death in the basilica in the southern Mediterranean city.
Churches were asked to chime their bells at 3pm in an act of mourning for three people who were killed in Nice’s Notre Dame Basilica while preparing for morning Mass.
Pope Francis sent a tweet expressing closeness to the people of Nice. “I pray for the victims, for their families and for the beloved French people, that they may respond to evil with good,” he said.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, sent a similar message from Pope Francis in a telegram to Bishop André Marceau of Nice. “Entrusting France to the protection of Our Lady,” Pope Francis “wholeheartedly gives his apostolic blessing to all those affected by this tragedy,” the telegram added.
The French Council of Muslim Worship condemned the killings and asked Muslims to express their “mourning and solidarity with the victims and their relatives” by canceling all celebrations of the birthday of Muhammad, which this year was marked by Sunni Muslims yesterday, the day of the attack.
According to French media, the victims included a 70-year-old woman whose body was found by police “almost beheaded” beside a holy water font.
A 45-year-old sacristan, Vincent Loques, a father of two daughters, was found dead in the basilica.
A picture of Vincent Loques in a makeshift memorial outside Notre Dame Basilica in Nice. (CNS photo/Eric Gaillard, Reuters)
A second woman, described as African in origin and in her 30s, fled the church after she was stabbed, but died in the nearby cafe where she had sought refuge.
Police shot and wounded a man in his 20s who was suspected of the attack, and he was arrested and taken to hospital for treatment.
The suspect was later identified as Brahim Aouissaoui, 21, a Tunisian who entered France via Lampedusa, an Italian island between Malta and Tunisia, at the end of September. He arrived in France after he was quarantined by Italian authorities and ordered to leave all Italian territory.
Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi said the attacker “kept shouting Allahu akbar (Arabic for God is great) even after being medicated”. The mayor said: “The meaning of his gesture is not in doubt.”
“Enough is enough,” he told journalists. “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.”
French police have confirmed they are treating the killings as a terrorist incident.
It comes amid mounting anger of Muslims at President Emmanuel Macron's defence of satirical cartoons of Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
Two hours after the attack, police shot dead a man who was brandishing a handgun and shouting “Allahu akbar” in the southern city of Avignon. The same day, a guard at the French consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was stabbed by a 40-year-old attacker, who was then apprehended.
Prime Minister Jean Castex was due to meet Bishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, president of the bishops’ conference, and Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris to discuss security measures needed to guarantee the safety of Catholics, especially in the run-up to All Saints’ Day on Sunday.
In a statement posted on the website of the Archdiocese of Paris, Archbishop Aupetit said he was “stunned by this murderous madness in the name of God”.
He said: “God has revealed himself to be a God of love. Murder in his name is the real one, the only blasphemy, an insult to who he is.
“From the beginning, Christians have been persecuted, and even today it is they who, although they preach and live the love of God and of neighbour together, pay the heaviest price in hatred and barbarism,” he added.
Gamra, the mother of Brahim Aouissaoui, who is suspected of carrying out a series of stabbings at Notre Dame Basilica. (CNS photo/Zoubeir Souissi, Reuters)
The French bishops said in a statement they had been plunged into “immense sadness”.
They said: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, the injured, their families and loved ones. It was because they were in the basilica that these people were attacked, murdered. They represented a symbol to be destroyed.”
The bishops said the attack reminded them of the martyrdom of Father Jacques Hamel, a priest hacked to death in his Normandy church by Islamic militants in 2016.
“Through these horrific acts, our entire country is affected,” they said in the statement. “This terrorism aims to instil anxiety throughout our society. It is urgent that this gangrene be stopped, as it is urgent that we find the indispensable fraternity which will hold us all upright in the face of these threats.
“Despite the pain gripping them, Catholics refuse to give in to fear and, with the whole nation, want to face this treacherous and blind threat,” the bishops added.
Bishop Marceau responded to the attack by ordering the instant closure of all of the churches in the city and declaring them to be under police protection.
“All my prayers go out to the victims, their loved ones, the law enforcement agencies on the front lines of this tragedy, priests and faithful wounded in their faith and hope,” said Bishop Marceau. “May Christ's spirit of forgiveness prevail in the face of these barbaric acts.”
He said the dead were “victims of a heinous terrorist act” that followed “the savage murder of Professor Samuel Paty”, a Paris teacher who was beheaded Oct. 16 by a Muslim migrant after he showed satirical cartoons of Muhammad to school children in a lesson about free speech.
The cartoons were first published in 2012 in Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that has since been the target of three terrorist attacks, one of which in 2015 claimed the lives of 12 staff members.
At the Vatican, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, tweeted in solidarity with the French church, saying extremism “must be fought with strength and determination”.
He said persecuted African Christians understood “too well” that violent Islamists would not give up their struggle.
The attack in Nice took place less than half a mile from the scene of the July 14 Bastille Day massacre of 2016, when a man plowed a truck into a crowd on the Promenade des Anglais, killing 86 people and injuring more than 400.
French politicians held a minute's silence ahead of a debate on new coronavirus restrictions, and Macron presided over an emergency Cabinet meeting about the attacks before leaving for Nice.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago issued a statement joining Pope Francis in prayer. “Whether such violence occurs in a mosque, synagogue, temple or church, in the United States or elsewhere in the world, it is an attack on everyone who seeks peace and closeness with our Creator,” he said. “Only by reaching out in love and supporting the dignity of our brothers and sisters can we hope to end the evil of hatred that gives rise to such actions. May the Notre Dame Basilica, named for Our Lord's gentle mother, be a place where forgiveness and healing can begin.”
Other US bishops also reacted as individuals, tweeting out condolences and seeking prayers on social meeting sites. Several, like New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan and Bishop Thomas A. Daly of Spokane, Washington, retweeted Pope Francis, saying they joined the Holy Father in prayers for the Catholic community in Nice. The Texas Catholic bishops said they joined the French bishops in prayer and added: “May they (victims) rest in peace, their families and friends be comforted, and the perpetrator be brought to justice.”
For Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, the attack seemed more personal. He said he was heartsick because “France was my home many years ago when I completed my doctoral studies.”
“I offer my prayers for the people of France, but especially for those whose lives were lost and for their families and friends who are now overcome with grief,” he said in a Twitter thread. “Please pray for the victims of this terrorist attack and for all Christians who suffer under the threats of persecution and death.”
From Detroit, Archbishop Allen Vigneron tweeted that “Catholics in southeast Michigan hold in prayer our brothers and sisters in faith and all the people of France touched by this tragedy, and first and foremost the victims and their families. We especially ask Our Lady of Sorrows to obtain for them the grace of uniting their sufferings to the cross of Christ, so that even in this hour of darkness the light of his Easter victory will shine forth.”
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, tweeted that the terrorist attack was “horrific, deplorable. We pray for the victims of that attack and for all around the world who are persecuted and suffer for their faith. Our faith is a precious gift; we should never take it for granted.”
International condolences voice similar concern expressions of support.
Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec tweeted his solidarity and prayers and noted that, once again, French were struck down by an attack on a place of worship.
In London, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster said he and other visitors to Nice knew the basilica well.
“Its violation deepens the horror of three brutal killings. May these three innocent people rest in peace. May all people reject utterly the pathway of senseless violence. May God bless Nice,” he said in a statement on the website of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.
The conference also posted a brief statement from Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham, chairman of the bishops' Department of Dialogue and Unity, who said he was “horrified by this senseless act of violence.”
“My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families and for the French nation as it comes together to mourn the loss of the three people killed in today's knife attack,” he said. Archbishop Longley referred to the murdered French teacher and also the victims of the 2016 Nice truck attack, which occurred less than half a mile from the basilica.
Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna tweeted in French and German: “The only answer to blind hatred and violence can only be more love and more solidarity. In the end, the promise of Jesus will prevail: Blessed are those who make peace, for they are called children of God!”