U.S. justices lean toward church in key religious rights case

The Supreme Court is seen ahead of the Senate voting to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch as an Associate Justice in Washington, DC, U.S. April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared poised to expand religious rights and potentially narrow the separation of church and state after liberal and conservative justices alike signaled support for a church denied Missouri taxpayer funds for a playground project.

A ruling in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri in the case, one of the most important of the court’s current term, could pave the way for more public money to go to religious entities.

Justices across the nine-member court’s ideological spectrum indicated that Trinity Lutheran should be allowed to apply for the Missouri grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. The church runs a preschool and daycare center.

“It does seem as though this is a clear burden on a constitutional right,” liberal Justice Elena Kagan said during a one-hour argument, referring to Missouri’s prohibition.

A ruling is due by the end of June. It is unclear how far the justices will go in setting a precedent that would give states more leeway to fund religious entities directly.

The dispute pits two provisions of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment against each other: the guarantee of the free exercise of religion and the Establishment Clause, which requires the separation of church and state.

A broad ruling favoring the church could bolster religious conservatives who favor weakening the wall between church and state, including using taxpayer money to pay for children to attend private religious schools rather than public schools. President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a prominent supporter of such “school choice” plans.

Trinity Lutheran, whose legal effort was spearheaded by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian activist group, could be headed for a lopsided win, with liberals Kagan and Stephen Breyer joining conservative justices in signaling support.

Missouri’s constitution bars “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state money, language that goes further than the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

Breyer questioned whether denying churches access to the playground grant money would be akin to refusing to provide police or fire services.

“What’s the difference?” Breyer said.

FEDERAL GRANTS

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito said several federal grant programs are open to religious entities, including one that provides money to enhance security at buildings where there is a risk of terrorist attack.

Synagogues, mosques and religious schools have received funding under that program, according to a brief filed by a Jewish group supporting the church’s position.

Alito asked Missouri’s lawyer, James Layton, if religious entities would be barred from applying if Missouri had a similar program. Layton said they would be prohibited.

Trinity Lutheran argued that Missouri’s policy violates its right to exercise religion as well as the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law. Missouri has said there is nothing unconstitutional about its grant program, noting that Trinity Lutheran remains free to practice any aspect of its faith however it wishes despite being denied state funds.

The court’s newest justice, Trump’s conservative appointee Neil Gorsuch, is known for an expansive view of religious rights. Gorsuch asked Layton why it is acceptable for Missouri to ban religious entities in some instances, such as with the playground program, but not in others, including safety and health services.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the most outspoken in backing Missouri’s ban, noting the difficulty states could face determining whether funds going to a religious entity are being used for a secular purposes.

“How do you separate out its secular function from its religious function?” Sotomayor asked.

Three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions similar to Missouri’s barring funding for religious entities.

Missouri’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, last Thursday reversed the state policy that had banned religious entities from applying for the grant money, saying it was wrong for “government bureaucrats” to deny grants to “people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids.”

Missouri and the church both urged the justices to decide the case anyway because of the important issues at play and because the governor’s action was not irreversible. The issue was discussed only briefly during Wednesday’s argument, suggesting the justices are eager to decide the case on the merits.

A Trinity Lutheran victory could help religious organizations nationwide win public dollars for certain purposes, such as health and safety. It also could buttress the case for using publicly funded vouchers to send children to religious schools.

A challenge to a 2015 court decision invalidating a Colorado voucher program is pending before the justices, awaiting the Trinity Lutheran case’s outcome.

Trinity Lutheran sued Missouri in federal court in 2012. The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 upheld a trial court’s dismissal of the suit, and the church appealed to the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. top court to hear key religious rights case involving Missouri church

The Supreme Court is seen ahead of the Senate voting to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch as an Associate Justice in Washington, DC, U.S. April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear a closely watched dispute over supplying taxpayer money to religious entities in which a church accuses Missouri of violating its religious rights by denying it state funds for a playground project.

The case, which examines the limits of religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution, is one of the most important before the court in its current term. It also marks the biggest test to date for the court’s newest justice, President Donald Trump’s appointee Neil Gorsuch.

The court’s conservative majority may be sympathetic to the church’s views. But there are questions over whether the nine justices will end up deciding the merits of the case after Missouri’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, last Thursday reversed the state policy that banned religious entities from applying for the funds.

Even though Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri could now actually apply for money from the grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires, its lawyers and state officials asked the justices to decide the case anyway.

Trinity Lutheran runs a preschool and daycare center.

Missouri’s constitution bars “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state money, language that goes further than the Constitution’s First Amendment separation of church and state requirement.

Trinity Lutheran’s legal effort is being spearheaded by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian legal activist group, which contends that Missouri’s policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.

In court papers, the state said the ban did not impose a burden on the church’s exercise of religion.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which backed the state’s ban, asked the justices to drop the case, saying it is now moot following Greitens’ policy reversal.

A victory at the Supreme Court for Trinity Lutheran could help religious organizations nationwide win public dollars for certain purposes, such as health and safety. It also could buttress the case for using taxpayer money for vouchers to help pay for children to attend religious schools rather than public schools in “school choice” programs advocated by conservatives.

Three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions similar to Missouri’s barring funding for religious entities.

Trinity Lutheran sued in federal court in 2012. The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 upheld a trial court’s dismissal of the suit, and the church appealed to the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; additional reporting by Andrew Chung; editing by Will Dunham)

Egypt’s interior ministry identifies Tanta church suicide bomber: state TV

Relatives of victims react next to coffins arriving to the Coptic church that was bombed on Sunday in Tanta, Egypt, April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s interior ministry on Thursday identified the suicide bomber in the church bombing in the city of Tanta as Mamdouh Amin Mohamed Baghdadi, a resident of Qena, south of Cairo.

At least 45 people, as well as the bombers, were killed in attacks on a cathedral in Alexandria and the church in Tanta in the Nile Delta on Palm Sunday, April 9. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks.

A ministry statement said Baghdadi was born in 1977 and was one of 19 suspected militants believed to belong to a cell behind a December suicide bombing of Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral, another attack claimed by Islamic State.

The statement said the authorities had arrested 3 of the 19 suspected militants in the cell.

Egypt’s government imposed a three-month state of emergency in the wake of the Palm Sunday attacks.

Religious minorities are increasingly targeted by Sunni Islamist militants, posing a challenge to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has pledged to protect them as part of his campaign against extremism.

Islamic State has waged a low-level war against soldiers and police in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula for years but it is increasingly targeting Christians and broadening its reach into Egypt’s mainland.

(Reporting by Ali Abdelatti; writing by Asma Alsharif; editing by Andrew Roche)

At least 13 killed after Texas church bus crash

A still image of aerial video is shown of an accident scene involving a Texas church bus carrying senior citizens which crashed head-on with another vehicle about 80 miles (130 km) west of San Antonio, Texas, U.S., March 29, 2017. Courtesy WOAI/KABB/Handout via REUTERS

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – At least 13 people were killed, and two injured, when a Texas church bus carrying senior citizens collided head-on with another vehicle on Wednesday, the church and a Texas state trooper said.

The bus had 14 people aboard when it collided with a pickup truck carrying one person, about 80 miles (130 km) west of San Antonio. The cause of the crash was being investigated, said Sergeant Conrad Hein, a spokesman of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The vehicles collided when the truck crossed the center line, Johnny Hernandez, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, told the San Antonio Express-News.

The truck driver was airlifted to a San Antonio hospital, the paper said on its website. The survivor who was on the bus was in serious but stable condition, the First Baptist Church of New Braunfels said on social media.

A group of senior adults affiliated with the church were on the bus returning from a three-day retreat in Leakey, Texas, the church said on its Facebook page.

“Thank you for the outpouring of love and support,” it added. “Please continue to pray.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott and his wife offered condolences to the victims.

“We are saddened by the loss of life and our hearts go out to all those affected,” Abbott said in a statement.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Clarence Fernandez)

‘Religious left’ emerging as U.S. political force in Trump era

By Scott Malone

(Reuters) – Since President Donald Trump’s election, monthly lectures on social justice at the 600-seat Gothic chapel of New York’s Union Theological Seminary have been filled to capacity with crowds three times what they usually draw.

In January, the 181-year-old Upper Manhattan graduate school, whose architecture evokes London’s Westminster Abbey, turned away about 1,000 people from a lecture on mass incarceration. In the nine years that Reverend Serene Jones has served as its president, she has never seen such crowds.

“The election of Trump has been a clarion call to progressives in the Protestant and Catholic churches in America to move out of a place of primarily professing progressive policies to really taking action,” she said.

Although not as powerful as the religious right, which has been credited with helping elect Republican presidents and boasts well-known leaders such as Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, the “religious left” is now slowly coming together as a force in U.S. politics.

This disparate group, traditionally seen as lacking clout, has been propelled into political activism by Trump’s policies on immigration, healthcare and social welfare, according to clergy members, activists and academics. A key test will be how well it will be able to translate its mobilization into votes in the 2018 midterm congressional elections.

“It’s one of the dirty little secrets of American politics that there has been a religious left all along and it just hasn’t done a good job of organizing,” said J. Patrick Hornbeck II, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in New York.

“It has taken a crisis, or perceived crisis, like Trump’s election to cause folks on the religious left to really own their religion in the public square,” Hornbeck said.

Religious progressive activism has been part of American history. Religious leaders and their followers played key roles in campaigns to abolish slavery, promote civil rights and end the Vietnam War, among others. The latest upwelling of left-leaning religious activism has accompanied the dawn of the Trump presidency.

Some in the religious left are inspired by Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic leader who has been an outspoken critic of anti-immigrant policies and a champion of helping the needy.

Although support for the religious left is difficult to measure, leaders point to several examples, such as a surge of congregations offering to provide sanctuary to immigrants seeking asylum, churches urging Republicans to reconsider repealing the Obamacare health law and calls to preserve federal spending on foreign aid.

The number of churches volunteering to offer sanctuary to asylum seekers doubled to 800 in 45 of the 50 U.S. states after the election, said the Elkhart, Indiana-based Church World Service, a coalition of Christian denominations which helps refugees settle in the United States – and the number of new churches offering help has grown so quickly that the group has lost count.

“The religious community, the religious left is getting out, hitting the streets, taking action, raising their voices,” said Reverend Noel Anderson, its national grassroots coordinator.

In one well-publicized case, a Quaker church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 14 took in a Honduran woman who has been living illegally in the United States for 25 years and feared she would be targeted for deportation.

‘NEVER SEEN’ THIS

Leaders of Faith in Public Life, a progressive policy group, were astounded when 300 clergy members turned out at a January rally at the U.S. Senate attempting to block confirmation of Trump’s attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, because of his history of controversial statements on race.

“I’ve never seen hundreds of clergy turning up like that to oppose a Cabinet nominee,” said Reverend Jennifer Butler, the group’s chief executive.

The group on Wednesday convened a Capitol Hill rally of hundreds of pastors from as far away as Ohio, North Carolina and Texas to urge Congress to ensure that no people lose their health insurance as a result of a vote to repeal Obamacare.

Financial support is also picking up. Donations to the Christian activist group Sojourners have picked up by 30 percent since Trump’s election, the group said.

But some observers were skeptical that the religious left could equal the religious right politically any time soon.

“It really took decades of activism for the religious right to become the force that it is today,” said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College, a Catholic school outside Boston.

But the power potential of the “religious left” is not negligible. The “Moral Mondays” movement, launched in 2013 by the North Carolina NAACP’s Reverend William Barber, is credited with contributing to last year’s election defeat of Republican Governor Pat McCrory by Democrat Roy Cooper.

The new political climate is also spurring new alliances, with churches, synagogues and mosques speaking out against the recent spike in bias incidents, including threats against mosques and Jewish community centers.

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which encourages alliances between Jewish and Muslim women, has tripled its number of U.S. chapters to nearly 170 since November, said founder Sheryl Olitzky.

“This is not about partisanship, but about vulnerable populations who need protection, whether it’s the LGBT community, the refugee community, the undocumented community,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

More than 1,000 people have already signed up for the center’s annual Washington meeting on political activism, about three times as many as normal, Pesner said.

Leaders of the religious right who supported Trump say they see him delivering on his promises and welcomed plans to defund Planned Parenthood, whose healthcare services for women include abortion, through the proposed repeal of Obamacare.

“We have not seen any policy proposals that run counter to our faith,” said Lance Lemmonds, a spokesman for the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a nonprofit group based in Duluth, Georgia.

(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou Jonathan Oatis)

Cairo church bombing kills 25, raises fears among Christians

A nun cries at the scene of the Cairo Church bombing

By Ahmed Mohammed Hassan and Ali Abdelaty

CAIRO (Reuters) – A bombing at Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral killed at least 25 people and wounded 49, many of them women and children attending Sunday mass, in the deadliest attack on Egypt’s Christian minority in years.

The attack comes as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi fights battles on several fronts. His economic reforms have angered the poor, a bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has seen thousands jailed, whilst an insurgency rages in Northern Sinai, led by the Egyptian branch of Islamic State.

The militant group has also carried out deadly attacks in Cairo and has urged its supporters to launch attacks around the world in recent weeks as it goes on the defensive in its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but exiled Brotherhood officials and home-grown militant groups condemned the attack. Islamic State supporters celebrated on social media.

“God bless the person who did this blessed act,” wrote one supporter on Telegram.

The explosion took place in a chapel, which adjoins St Mark’s, Cairo’s main cathedral and the seat of Coptic Pope Tawadros II, where security is normally tight.

The United States said it “will continue to work with its partners to defeat such terrorist acts” and that it was committed to Egypt’s security, according to a White House statement on Sunday.

The UN Security Council urged “all States, in accordance with their obligations under international law and relevant Security Council resolutions, to cooperate actively with all relevant authorities” to hold those responsible accountable.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis condemned what he called the latest in a series of “brutal terrorist attacks” and said he was praying for the dead and wounded.

The chapel’s floor was covered in debris from shattered windows, its wooden pews blasted apart, its pillars blackened. Here and there lay abandoned shoes and sticky patches of blood.

“As soon as the priest called us to prepare for prayer, the explosion happened,” Emad Shoukry, who was inside when the blast took place, told Reuters.

“The explosion shook the place … the dust covered the hall and I was looking for the door, although I couldn’t see anything … I managed to leave in the middle of screams and there were a lot of people thrown on the ground.”

Security sources told Reuters at least six children were among the dead, with the blast detonating on the side of the church normally used by women.

They said the explosion was caused by a device containing at least 12 kg (26 pounds) of TNT.

Police and armored vehicles rushed to the area, as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the compound demanding revenge for the attack that took place on a Muslim holiday marking the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday and weeks before Christmas. Scuffles broke out with police.

A woman sitting near the cathedral in traditional long robes shouted, “kill them, kill the terrorists, what are you waiting for? … Why are you leaving them to bomb our homes?”

“EGYPTIAN BLOOD IS CHEAP”

Though Egypt’s Coptic Christians have traditionally been supporters of the government, angry crowds turned their ire against Sisi, saying his government had failed to protect them.

“As long as Egyptian blood is cheap, down, down with any president,” they chanted. Others chanted “the people demand the fall of the regime”, the rallying cry of the 2011 uprising that helped end Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Sisi’s office condemned what it described as a terrorist attack, declaring three days of mourning and promising justice. Al-Azhar, Egypt’s main Islamic center of learning, also denounced the attacks.

Orthodox Copts, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, are the Middle East’s biggest Christian community.

Copts face regular attack by Muslim neighbors, who burn their homes and churches in poor rural areas, usually in anger over an inter-faith romance or the construction of church.

The last major attack on a church took place as worshippers left a New Year’s service in Alexandria weeks before the start of the 2011 uprising. At least 21 people were killed.

Egypt’s Christian community has felt increasingly insecure since Islamic State spread through Iraq and Syria in 2014, ruthlessly targeting religious minorities. In 2015, 21 Egyptian Christians working in Libya were killed by Islamic State.

The attack came two days after six police were killed in two bomb attacks, one of them claimed by Hasm, a recently-emerged group the government says is linked to the Brotherhood, which has been banned under Sisi as a terrorist organization.

The Brotherhood says it is peaceful. Several exiled Brotherhood officials condemned the bombing, as did Hasm and Liwaa’ al-Thawra, another local militant group.

Coptic Pope Tawadros II cut short a visit to Greece after learning of the attack. In a speech aired on state television, he said “the whole situation needs us all to be disciplined as much as possible … strong unity is the most important thing.”

Church officials said earlier on Sunday they would not allow the bombing to create sectarian differences.

But Christians, convinced attacks on them are not seriously investigated, say this time they want justice.

“Where was the security? There were five or six security cars stationed outside so where were they when 12 kg of TNT was carried inside?” said Mena Samir, 25, standing at the church’s metal gate. “They keep telling us national unity, the crescent with the cross … This time we will not shut up.”

(Additional reporting by Arwa Gaballa, Amr Abdallah, Mohamed Abdel Ghany, Amina Ismail, Mostafa Hashem in Cairo, Philip Pullella in Rome, Michelle Nichols in New York and; Yara Bayoumy in Washington; writing by Amina Ismail and Lin Noueihed; editing by Ros Russell and Raissa Kasolowsky)

France buries priest murdered by Islamist militants

Picture of slain French priest

By Antony Paone

ROUEN, France (Reuters) – Mourners crammed into Rouen Cathedral on Tuesday for the funeral of the Roman Catholic priest knifed to death at his church altar, as France’s political leaders sought ways to defeat home-grown Islamist violence.

Father Jacques Hamel was leading morning mass in the nearby industrial town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray last Tuesday when the attackers stormed in, forced the 85-year-old to his knees and slit his throat while chanting in Arabic.

Amid tight security at the thirteenth century gothic cathedral in northern France, a procession of senior clergy followed pallbearers who carried Hamel’s coffin through the “Door of Mercy” and placed it on an ornate rug before the altar.

The priest’s sister, Roselyne Hamel, told the congregation how during his military service in Algeria her brother had refused an officer’s rank so as not give the order to kill, and how he once emerged the sole survivor in a desert shootout.

“He would often ask himself: ‘Why me?’ Today, Jacques, our brother, your brother, you have your answer: Our God of love and mercy chose you to be at the service of others,” she said.

The service was to be followed by a private burial.

Hamel’s murder by French citizens was the first Islamist attack on a church in western Europe and came just 12 days after a Tunisian who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State drove his truck through a crowd of Bastille Day revelers in the Riviera city of Nice, killing 84.

Islamist militants have killed more than 200 people in France since January 2015.

Facing strong criticism from right-wing opponents over its security record, the Socialist government has warned of a long war against militant Islam at home and abroad in places such as Iraq, Syria and Libya.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said the state must reinvent its relationship with the “Islam of France”. France’s Muslim minority, the European Union’s largest, makes up about 8 percent of the population.

URGENCY

Since the 1980s, successive governments have tried to nurture a liberal Islam that would better integrate the faith into French society.

Meanwhile, the Muslim community, riven by divisions and power politics, has struggled to oppose radical Salafist groups that have established their presence in some mosques and neighborhoods as well as on the Internet.

Valls wants to ban foreign funding for mosques and says all French imams should be trained in France. His interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said that a foundation that would enable the secular state to finance cultural centers linked to places of worship would be established by the end of the year.

“We must guard against being paternalistic but we must have the lucidity to recognize that there is an urgency to helping ‘Islam of France’ get rid of those that undermine it from within,” Valls told the weekly Journal du Dimanche.

Some Islamic leaders have expressed doubts over the government’s plans.

“It’s on the internet that radicalisation takes place, not in the mosques,” Moroccan-born Tareq Oubrou, a leading moderate imam from Bordeaux, told BFM TV. “We mustn’t kid ourselves.”

Cazeneuve, whose portfolio includes religious affairs, said on Monday that the Socialist government had shut down about 20 mosques and prayer halls in recent months and that more closures would follow based on intelligence in hand.

(Additional reporting and writing by Richard Lough in Paris; Editing by Andrew Callus and Robin Pomeroy)

Islamist knifemen slit priest’s throat in church in France

Police outside of French Catholic Church where hostages have been taken

By Noemie Olive

SAINT-ETIENNE-DU-ROUVRAY, France (Reuters) – Knife-wielding attackers interrupted a church service in France, forced the priest to his knees and slit his throat on Tuesday, an attack that President Francois Hollande said showed the threat from Islamist militancy was greater than ever.

Police shot and killed the attackers as they emerged from the church, freeing three hostages, one of whom was seriously wounded.

The knifemen arrived during morning mass in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, northwest of Paris, where the 85-year-old parish priest Father Jacques Hamel was leading prayers.

“They forced him to his knees and he tried to defend himself and that’s when the drama began,” Sister Danielle, who escaped as the attackers slayed the priest, told RMC radio.

“They filmed themselves. It was like a sermon in Arabic around the altar,” the nun said.

Speaking at the scene, Hollande called it a “dreadful terrorist attack,” adding that the attackers had pledged allegiance to Islamic State, the militant group that he said had declared war on France.

News agency Amaq, which is affiliated with Islamic State, said two of its “soldiers” had carried out the attack. Police said one person had been arrested.

Tuesday’s attack came less than two weeks after a Tunisian plowed a truck into a crowd in the French Riviera city of Nice, killing 84 people. Islamic State claimed that attack.

France is a major partner in the U.S.-led military coalition bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. The White House condemned Tuesday’s attack and commended the French police’s “quick and decisive response.”

Several French media reported that one of the assailants was a local who had spent a year in jail on his return from Turkey after being intercepted trying to travel to Syria, but had been freed on bail with an electronic tag pending trial for terrorism offences.

The prosecutor’s office said the identification of the two suspects was still under way.

MERCILESS

A horrified local resident, Cecile Lefebre, said: “I have no words. How do you arrive at this point, killing people in cold blood like this? It’s pure barbarity.”

Since the Bastille Day mass murder in Nice, there has been a spate of attacks in Germany, some of which appear to be Islamist-inspired.

“In the face of this threat that has never been greater in France and Europe, the government is absolutely determined (to defeat) terrorism,” Hollande said in a televised address.

But former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is expected to enter a conservative primary for next year’s presidential election, accused the Socialist government of being soft.

“We must be merciless,” Sarkozy said in a statement to reporters. “The legal quibbling, precautions and pretexts for insufficient action are not acceptable. I demand that the government implement without delay the proposals we presented months ago. There is no more time to be wasted.”

The center-right opposition wants all Islamist suspects to be either held in detention or electronically tagged to avert potential attacks.

Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is also expected to run for the presidency, said both Sarkozy’s and Hollande’s parties had failed on security.

“All those who have governed us for 30 years bear an immense responsibility. It’s revolting to watch them bickering!” she tweeted.

Hollande said France should “use all its means” within the law to fight Islamic State.

Pope Francis condemned what he called a “barbarous killing”.

“The fact that this episode took place in a church, killing a priest, a minister of the Lord and involving the faithful, is something that affects us profoundly,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.

In a telephone call with the pope, Hollande expressed “the sorrow of all French people after the heinous murder of Father Jacques Hamel by two terrorists,” and said everything would be done to protect places of worship, the presidential palace said.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former conservative prime minister who now heads the Senate’s foreign affairs committee tweeted: “Everything is being done to trigger a war of religions.”

(Additional reporting by Chine Labbe, Marine Pennetier, Michel Rose and Richard Lough in Paris and Jess Mason in Washington; Writing by Richard Lough and Paul Taylor; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Robin Pomeroy)