PARIS (AP) — More horrifying details emerged Wednesday about an attack on a French village church even as the country's main religious leaders sent a message of unity and solidarity after meeting with President Francois Hollande in Paris.
Two attackers took five hostages Tuesday at the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in northwest France and slit the throat of the elderly priest saying morning Mass. A nun at the Mass slipped out to raise the alarm and both attackers, one of them a local man, were then killed by police outside the church.
Emotions in France that were raw after a July 14 truck attack in Nice that killed 84 people became more frazzled after the church in Normandy was attacked. Both deadly attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group.
On Wednesday, the IS-affiliated Amaq news agency released a video allegedly showing the church attackers sitting on a floor, clasping hands, and pledging allegiance to the group.
The speaker in the video identified himself by the jihadi nom de guerre Abul Jaleel al-Hanafi, and said his compatriot is called Ibn Omar. French prosecutors have previously identified the former as Adel Kermiche, a 19-year-old who grew up in the town and tried to travel to Syria twice last year using family members' identity documents.
Wearing a camo jacket and speaking in broken Arabic, Kermiche recited: "We pledge allegiance and obedience to Emir of the faithful Abu Bakr al-Baghdady in hardship and in ease."
With the attack threat for France ranked extremely high, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said France is working to protect 56 remaining summer events and may consider cancelling some. Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said 4,000 members of the Sentinel military force will patrol Paris, while 6,000 will patrol in the provinces. They are being bolstered by tens of thousands of police and reservists.
One of the hostages at the church, an 86-year-old woman, said Wednesday that the attackers had handed her husband Guy a cellphone and demanded that he take photos or video of the priest — 85-year-old Rev. Jacques Hamel — after he was slain. Her husband was then slashed in four places by the attackers and is now hospitalized with serious injuries.
The woman, identified only as Jeanine, told RMC radio that her husband played dead to stay alive. Two nuns were held hostage along with the couple and the priest.
"The terrorists held me with a revolver at my neck," she said, adding it was not clear to her now whether the weapon was real or fake. "He (the priest) fell down looking upwards, toward us."
The Paris prosecutor, Francois Molins, said the two attackers had knives and fake explosives — one a phony suicide belt covered in tin foil.
Those who knew Kermiche in this Normandy town where he grew up said he appeared to think of little else other than trying to join the extremist group in Syria after the January 2015 attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket.
"He said it wasn't possible to live peacefully in France. He spoke with words that did not belong to him. He was mesmerized, like in a sect," his mother said in an interview last year after her son was detained and returned to France after trying to make it to Syria.
She said the family, who had flagged him to authorities, did not know where to turn.
"Luckily he was caught in time twice," she told the Tribunal de Geneve newspaper. "If he had made it to Syria, I would have had to write him off."
Initially Kermiche was jailed, but a judge later ordered him released — over prosecutor objections — and placed him under limited house arrest with an electronic surveillance bracelet. He was allowed out for four hours each day. During that time, the tracking device was deactivated and he was permitted to go anywhere in the region as long as he returned home by the appointed hour, according to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
The prosecutor's office said Wednesday the second attacker has not been formally identified. In addition, police detained a 16-year-old whom Molins said was the younger brother of a young man who traveled to the Syria-Iraq zone of the Islamic State group carrying Kermiche's ID. He was still being questioned Wednesday.
Hollande, meanwhile, presided over a defense council and Cabinet meeting in Paris after speaking with Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish leaders.
The archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, called on Catholics to "overcome hatred that comes in their heart" and not to allow the Islamic State group "to set children of the same family upon each other."
The rector of the main Paris mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, said France's Muslims must push for better training of Muslim clerics and urged that reforming French Muslim institutions be put on the agenda. He did not elaborate.
Pope Francis, visiting Krakow, Poland, for World Youth Day celebrations, said of the slaying of the priest, "It's war, we don't have to be afraid to say this."
He then clarified to say, "I am not speaking of a war of religions. Religions don't want war. The others want war."
In the town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, young and old were stunned by the attack.
An 18-year-old neighbor said he had seen Kermiche just three days earlier in nearby Rouen wearing a long Islamic robe.
When he heard about the church attack, "I knew it was him, I was sure," the young man told the AP, identifying himself only as Redwan. He said Kermiche had told him and others about his efforts to get to Syria and "he was saying we should go there and fight for our brothers."
"We were saying that is not good. And he was replying that France is the land of unbelievers," Redwan said.
"We tried to bring him to his senses, but every time we did it he was bringing in a verse from the Quran. He was inventing things," he said.
A family acquaintance defended the efforts of Kermiche's parents even as this Normandy town tried to absorb the shock of Tuesday's slaying.
"The parents did everything to avoid this. They gave them everything in material terms, in terms of love," said Annie Geslin, who worked with Kermiche's mother in a family association.
"They did not succeed in getting their son to return to a, how to say it, a normal behavior," she added.
The Kermiche family home was empty Wednesday, and Geslin said the parents were right to leave, given the tumult.
Candles were placed in front of the village's town hall as residents called for unity.
"We are scared," said Mulas Arbanu. "(But) be we Christians, Muslims, anything, we have to be together."
Another resident, Said Aid Lahcen, had met the slain priest.
"From the moment when you touch a religion, you attack the nation, and you attack a people. We must not get into divergences, but stay united as we were before," he said.