The church in Normandy, France, whose 84-year-old priest, Father Jacques Hamel, was killed by supporters of the Islamic State terror group earlier this week, had donated land to Muslims to build a mosque, according to a senior Catholic cleric.
The slain priest "led a pure, simple life, with an emphasis on building friendships," Father Mark Ephrem Nolan, prior of the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Cross near Rostrevor, told Belfast Telegraph.
"Church authorities facilitated the giving of land beside his church to local Muslims to build a mosque, and they were given use of the parish hall and other facilities during Ramadan," Nolan said, referring to the Church of the Gambetta, where Hamel served.
Catholics and Muslims in the town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, where Fr. Hamel died, continue to have good relations, the 58-year-old cleric said. "There is a large Muslim population there, and relations are normally very good between the communities… Efforts have been made by the Christian community to be welcoming to Muslims. The Sisters even give reading lessons to Muslim kids in tower blocks."
Islamic State, a Sunni terror group which operates from Iraq and Syria, is "trying to destroy those good relations," Nolan said. "They target those areas, and Fr Hamel was very aware of that."
The terror group, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, has been losing territory in Iraq and Syria, and some have posed that to be a reason behind increased attacks in other parts of the world. Such attacks, they claim, help ISIS to falsely portray its strength and the spread of its ideology as well as create divisions and thereby gain more recruits.
The murdered priest was close to the people. "He was regarded as a genuinely holy man," Nolan said. "The way he celebrated the Eucharist and other sacraments in the parish made him extremely popular. His parishioners requested that he should lead their family and community celebrations."
On July 26, two assailants stormed Hamel's church and took five people hostage, including the priest, two nuns and two parishioners. They slit Hamel's throat with a knife and left three others wounded.
The killers were identified as 19-year-old Adel Kermiche from Northern France and Abdel-Malik Nabil Petitjean, also 19, from Eastern France. They were shot and killed by authorities as they exited the church after murdering the priest.
The Christian Post earlier reported that the Church of the Gambetta was found on an Islamic State hit list from 2015. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack by releasing a video purporting to show the two teenagers pledging their allegiance to the jihadists.
According to The Guardian, a teenager who knew Kermiche made no secret of his desire to attack the church. "I wasn't surprised. He talked about it all the time," he was quoted as saying. "He talked about Islam, the things like this he was going to do. He talked about the Quran and Mecca and he told me 'I'm going to attack a church.' He said this two months ago on leaving the mosque. On my mother's life I didn't believe him."
After the priest's murder, Pope Francis said he joins in "prayer for the suffering of family members, of the pain of the parish and the diocese of Rouen." He also said that he "invokes God, the merciful Father, that he welcome the Abott Jacque Hamel into the peace of his light and that he bring comfort to the wounded."
The pontiff added that he was "particularly shaken by this act of violence that took place in a church, during the celebration of Mass, a liturgical act that implores God for peace on this earth," and asked God to "inspire all to thoughts of reconciliation and brotherhood."