On July 26th a new attack took place in France that IS took responsibility of. In the Catholic church of St. Etienne du Rouvray near Rouen, during mass, two armed Islamists entered and carried out their act of terror. They slit the throat of priest Fr. Jacques Hammel (who was 84 years old). As it was reported in the media, they made him kneel and filmed their deed, while nuns as well members of the congregation were held hostages. The whole event ended with the two perpetrators getting shot by French authorities.
It is not the first time that IS has targeted Christians. Actually for years now in the Middle East, the historic cradle of Christianity, a systematic massacre with the use of killings, abductions, rapes, sexual slavery has been taking place against Christians. Moreover it is over 3 years now that the Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi have been abducted by extremists and their fate is still unknown. Yet this attack in France has been the first direct terrorist attack against Christians in European soil.
Analyzing the recent previous attacks in France many commentators have referred to the opposition of the Islamists to the western/European way of life and the values the French Revolution. Many also argued about the connection between radicalization to violence and social frustration, financial inequality and personal grievances. What many fail to acknowledge is that for the fighters of the Islamic State, for Islamists generally, the war they wage has religious connotation. While there are indeed many other characteristics we can comment on, we cannot avoid the religious one. Whether we Europeans in our secular environment do not consider anymore religion as a player in social life is irrelevant. What matters is what the terrorists themselves believe and how they act according to this belief. The Islamic State rhetoric, the rhetoric of the groups that have been operating under the islamist umbrella, has always been expressed in a clear way. They are driven by a distorted, violent interpretation of Islam and they have started a violent jihad against the unbelievers and apostates. So anyone who is not a proper Muslim (according to the criteria posed by the Islamists) and people of different faith are to be attacked. Hence the bloodbath in mosques, but also churches and monasteries in the Middle East and now in a church in France. Especially towards Christians the hate of the Islamists is not derived only by distorted theology, but also by the violent clashes between Christians and Muslims in the past. Talking about France, we should remember that in the times of the Crusades, the French knights were among the most important to take part. France, as well as Europe, is repeatedly named by lslamists as a place of Crusaders.
How France and Europe reacts to this last attack is of the utmost importance. First of all- especially for the French who live in a secular environment that has led even to what could be characterized as denial of the reality of religion in people’s lives- we must finally acknowledge that there is a religious parameter in this violent threat. Moreover, the attack should be viewed not as just a clash between religious communities, but as a terror attack by extremists against all Europeans, whether they are Christian or not, whether they are religious or not. The right of French (and European) people to attend church, to pray and worship God in any religious location of any faith must be secured. Additionally, even if countries and societies are today secular, regardless if few or many practice Christian religion, Christianity is still embedded in so many levels of the European culture. As the whole world showed solidarity after the Charlie Hebdo hit (despite the controversial content of the journal, even offensive and blasphemous towards members of religious communities), the same solidarity should be shown now to Christian victims. Not only freedom of expression, but also freedom of religion is of importance in a society and it must be protected from the threat posed by terrorists.
From an operational point of view- from what information has been published up to now-it seems that at least one of the perpetrators was already known to French authorities for his extremist activities and he was under electronic bracelet surveillance (obviously not monitored during the attack!). Additionally, the church where the attack happened appears to have been known as a potential target for terrorists, as it is reported that it was found in the IS hit list during a suspect arrest last year. The issue of intelligence and how it is used emerges once more in regard with French authorities. It is constantly declared by the French government how the war against the Islamic State will continue. Yet, the war should not be conceived in territorial terms that refer to Syria. The “war” has moved long ago inside the French soil, inside Europe’s borders; it is a domestic terrorism challenge and military interventions can do little to deter it. Security provisions inside the country, good gathering of intelligence and making good use of it are imperative.
Also, there is one thing very important to remember after this last attack. Islamists want to polarize population and create conflict between Christianity and Islam, between Christians and Muslims. They want to engage Muslims in a war against the rest of the world. We should not allow this division to take place. Radicalization to violence and recruitment will be made more easy if there will be reckless reaction to the provocation of the Islamic State. We can not let the barbaric acts of IS create a gap and animosity between Christians and Muslims who have been peacefully living together in Europe for so many years now. Terrorism is perpetrated by specific extremists, not by Muslims. Acts of revenge by “defenders” of the Christian faith against Muslims and islamophobia are not only wrong on moral level, but they will actually work in favor of the Islamists. Apart from security measures taken by the state, it is actually the collaboration between the Christian and Muslim community in Europe that will give the proper response of those who use religion to spread death instead of hope to the world.