A knife-wielding man attacked and killed three Christians in a church Thursday morning, French officials say.
The man nearly beheaded one of his victims and cut the throat of another while they attended Mass in Nice’s Notre Dame Basilica. The third escaped only to die of her stab wounds, Catholic Arena reported. The victims were a woman in her 70s, the church sacristan and one other woman. The suspect injured several others.
Pictures from inside the basilica show chairs scattered, broken and overturned in the attack.
Police shot the suspect, then gave him medical aid. Even under anesthetic, he continued saying, “Allahu Akbar,” Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi told Radio France Internationale. The mayor called the attack “Islamo-fascist.”
The suspect has been identified as 21-year-old Brahim Aioussaoi from Tunisia, according to BBC. Before arriving in France this month, he had landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa in September.
The bishop of Nice, Monsignor André Marceau, said that all churches in the city are now closed under police protection.
“My sadness is infinite as a human being in front of what other beings, called humans, can do,” Marceau said in a statement. “May the spirit of Christ’s pardon prevail against these barbaric acts.”
French Christians see the attack as an attack on French civilization, missionary group SIM Communications Manager for France and Belgium Vincent Wastable told The Christian Post. Although most French people aren’t practicing Christians, they see the Catholic Church as an important part of their nation’s heritage.
“Terrorist organizations have a misconception of what is French society,” Wastable said. “They think that Western society is Christian, which is not the case anymore. French society has grown into secularism.”
The European Council condemned the "terrorist attack" as an attack "on our shared values" and called for "understanding among communities and religions rather than division."
The attack happened on the birthday of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. It comes over a week after a French teacher was beheaded after showing a caricature of Muhammad from the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo as part of a lesson on free speech.
Muslims in France and around the world have protested the cartoons and French President Emmanuel Macron who said he would not “renounce the caricatures.”
In his address on Thursday, Macron stood by the country's value of freedom. "If we are attacked once again it is for the values which are ours: the freedom, for this possibility on our soil to believe freely and not to give in to any spirit of terror. I say it with great clarity once again today: we won't surrender anything.”
Wastable said that the attacks by Islamic terrorists stem from differences in philosophy. French culture values the freedom to say anything about anything, he said. Magazines with cartoons that profane religious figures are a part of French life. But Muslims do not tolerate speech they consider blasphemous.
“The Muslim community, especially the radical ones, cannot accept the freedom of expression,” said Wastable, whose church regularly host games with Muslim kids in a nearby neighborhood. “The humanist philosophy can be a little naïve about Islam. It wants to put everyone at the same level and you cannot put Islam in Western countries because of all these terrorist attacks. It can’t be approached the same way.”
Though he said evangelical Christians "feel near to the Muslim community" and try to find common ground, he also noted that French people have grown more concerned over the growing influence of Islam. According to the Pew Research Center, France has Europe’s highest Muslim population, at 8.8%.