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Attacks in France continue as Tunisian man armed with knife kills three in French church

PHOTO CREDITS: DANIEL COLE/AP  

On Thursday, a young Tunisian man armed with a knife and carrying a copy of the Quran attacked worshippers in a French church, killing three. 

The attack in Mediterranean city of Nice was the third in less than two months that French authorities have attributed to Muslim extremists. Thursday’s attacker was seriously wounded by police and was hospitalized in life-threatening condition after the killings at the Notre Dame Basilica.

President Emmanuel Macron said he would immediately increase the number of soldiers deployed to protect schools and religious sites from around 3,000 to 7,000. France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said the suspect is a Tunisian born in 1999 who reached the Italian island of Lampedusa, a key landing point for migrants crossing in boats from North Africa, on Sept. 20 and traveled to Bari, a port city in southern Italy, on Oct. 9. Prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard did not specify when he arrived in Nice. The mayor criticized France’s laws, saying they’re not sufficient to deal with what he called “Islamo-fascism.”

Video cameras recorded the man entering the Nice train station at 6:47 a.m., where he changed his shoes and turned his coat inside out before heading for the church, some 400 meters away, just before 8:30 a.m. Ricard said the attacker was carrying a copy of Islam’s holy book and two telephones. A knife with a 17-centimeter blade used in the attack was found near him along with a bag containing another two knives that were not used in the attack. He had spent some 30 minutes inside the church before police arrived via a side entrance and “after advancing down a corridor they came face-to-face with (the attacker) whom they neutralized,” Ricard said.

Witnesses heard the man crying ”Allahu Akbar” as he advanced on police. Police initially used an electric gun then fired their service revolvers. Ricard said 14 bullet casings were found on the ground. Ricard detailed a gruesome scene inside the church where two of the victims died. A 60-year-old woman suffered “a very deep throat slitting, like a decapitation,” he said, and a 55-year-old man also suffered deep, fatal throat cuts. The third victim, a 44-year-old woman, managed to flee the church alive but died at a nearby restaurant. The three were killed “only because they were in the church at that moment,” Ricard told reporters. He said investigators are looking for potential complicity in the “complex” probe.

France’s national police chief had ordered increased security at churches and mosques earlier this week, but no police appeared to be guarding the Nice church when it was attacked, and Associated Press reporters saw no visible security forces at multiple prominent religious sites in Paris. French churches have been attacked by extremists in recent years. Thursday’s killings come ahead of the Roman Catholic All Saints’ holiday.

The attack in Nice took place on the day many Muslims celebrate the anniversary of Muhammad’s birth. The French Council of the Muslim Faith called on French Muslims to refrain from festivities marking the birth of Muhammad “as a sign of mourning and in solidarity with the families of victims and the Catholics of France.” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry also strongly condemned the attack. “We stand in solidarity with the people of France against terror and violence,” the statement said (AP News). 

A verdict is planned for Nov. 13, the fifth anniversary of another series of deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris. The recent attacks come amid renewed outcry over depictions of Islam’s most revered prophet — whose birthday was marked in several countries Thursday — and the French government’s fierce defense of the right to publish and show them. Muslims have held protests in several countries and called for a boycott of French goods.

The attack in Nice came less than two weeks after Paty, a teacher, was beheaded. In September, a man who had sought asylum in France attacked bystanders outside Charlie Hebdo’s former offices with a butcher knife. French Jewish and Catholic sites have also frequently been targeted, including the killing of the Rev. Jaqcues Hamel, who had his throat slit while celebrating Mass in his Normandy church by Islamic militants and a plot to bomb Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral. Those attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group, which also is believed to have recruited a man now on trial for an unsuccessful plot to attack a church. “With the attack against Samual Paty, it was freedom of speech that was targeted,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told lawmakers Thursday.

France’s high-profile stance sparked outrage in parts of the Muslim world, setting off a diplomatic feud between France and Turkey. Turkey’s president accused Macron of Islamophobia over the caricatures and questioned his mental health, prompting Paris to recall its ambassador to Turkey for consultations. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said in a tweet: “We strongly condemn today’s terrorist attack in #Nice.” In an apparent reference to the caricatures, he tweeted that “This escalating vicious cycle — hate speech, provocations & violence — must be replaced by reason & sanity.”

Tensions in France also include a debate over BarakaCity, a Muslim association that the government ordered dissolved on Wednesday. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said the group “incited hatred,” maintained ties to the radical Islamist movement, and justified terrorist acts (NPR). 

POLITICS EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE

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