Portsmouth churchgoers offer prayers after Normandy outrage

French Priest Jacques Hamel
French Priest Jacques Hamel
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Anglican leaders in Portsmouth today pledged to keep churches as accessible as possible as they offered prayers for those affected by the Normandy atrocity.

Churches in the city have already received security advice from police after a string of attacks worldwide for which Isis has claimed responsibility and a rise in UK reported hate crime following the Brexit vote.

Today, as Christians around the world recoiled at news that an elderly priest in France was murdered in an attack on a church, a spokesman for the Church of England’s Diocese of Portsmouth said: ‘Our churches have been and will be praying for everyone affected by the horrific events in Normandy. We have also received some advice from the police about security measures, which we have circulated to all of our parishes.

‘Churches are public buildings that are open to all. Where there are known risks, churches take measures to ensure the safety and security of worshippers and visitors. But we also want our churches to remain accessible and welcoming to all those who want to spend a moment in prayer or meditation, or to enjoy our services and community activities. We will strive to get that balance right.”

British churches have been urged to review security arrangements as a precaution after the terrorist attack in Normandy.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council said the Christian community should be “alert but not alarmed” and report concerns.

There are an estimated 47,000 Christian churches, chapels and meeting houses in the UK.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said: “There is no specific intelligence relating to attacks against the Christian community in the UK.

“However, as we have seen, Daesh and other terrorist groups have targeted Christian as well as Jewish and other faith groups in the West and beyond.

“Following recent events in France, we are reiterating our protective security advice to Christian places of worship and have circulated specific advice today.

“We are also taking this opportunity to remind them to review their security arrangements as a precaution.”

He said it was part of ongoing work with faith organisations and other sectors to “help ensure the safety and security of their staff, visitors and members”.

The threat to the UK from international terrorism currently stands at severe, meaning an attack is “highly likely”.

Mr Basu said: “While the threat from terrorism remains unchanged at severe we urge the public to be vigilant.

“The UK police service is working tirelessly with our partners to confront the threat and protect all our communities.”

In a separate announcement on Tuesday, the Government announced a new £2.4 million fund for security measures at places of worship as part of efforts to tackle hate crime.

One of the terrorists involved in slitting the throat of a priest in Normandy was wearing an electronic surveillance tag at the time of the attack.

France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said the man, identified as 19-year-old Adel Kermiche, also evaded police twice using relatives’ identities in attempts to reach Syria.

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Kermiche’s tag was deactivated for a few hours every morning, corresponding with the time of the attack.

Speaking at a press conference, he explained the attacker - who was shot dead by police - was arrested in Germany in March 2015 trying to join extremists in Syria using his brother’s identity and then was arrested in Turkey two months later using a cousin’s ID.

French authorities said the men had fake explosives and used nuns within the church as humans shields as police tried to enter the place of worship.

One had three knives and a fake explosives belt, while the other carried a kitchen timer wrapped in aluminium foil and had fake explosives in his backpack.

Mr Molins said the attackers, who claimed allegiance to Islamic State, also cried “Allahu Akbar” - God is great - during the attack on 85-year-old Father Jacques Hamel.

He added that a minor, believed to be a 16-year-old younger brother of somebody wanted by police for trying to go to Syria or Iraq in 2015, had been detained in connection with the investigation.

A nun, identified as Sister Danielle, described how Father Hamel was forced to kneel on the floor before his throat was cut during the hour-long hostage-taking incident which began as the two knifemen burst into the parish church by a back door during morning mass.

She said: “They forced him to his knees. He wanted to defend himself. And that’s when the tragedy happened.

“They recorded themselves. They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic. It’s a horror,” she told BFM television.

French president Francois Hollande pledged to fight IS “using all means possible”.

Adding that the country was “waging war”, he urged his compatriots to stay united and not turn against each other.

Mr Hollande said: “What terrorists want is to divide us, separate us, set us against each other”, vowing: “We will win this war.”

The attack in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray sent shock waves through a nation already reeling from the murder of 84 people in Nice on July 14, when a Tunisian national drove a lorry into crowds enjoying Bastille Day fireworks, as well as earlier atrocities directed at rock fans and sports crowds and the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.

At a press conference in Downing Street, Prime Minister Theresa May offered her condolences to the French people, saying: “Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected.

“We all face a terror threat. If you look at the national threat level here in the United Kingdom, it is at severe. That means that a terrorist attack is highly likely.

“What is necessary is for us all to work together, and stand shoulder to shoulder with France. We offer them every support we have in dealing with this issue and this threat that they, and the rest of us, are facing.

“But on one thing, I think, we are all absolutely clear, and that is the terrorists will not prevail.

“They are trying to destroy our way of life. They are trying to destroy our values. We have shared values and those values will win through and the terrorists will not win.”

Despite there being no specific intelligence relating to attacks against the Christian community in the UK, the National Police Chiefs’ Council is urging the community to be alert but not alarmed, report concerns and review their security as a precaution.

National operational police lead for protect and prepare, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, said: “There is no specific intelligence relating to attacks against the Christian community in the UK. However, as we have seen, Daesh and other terrorist groups have targeted Christian as well as Jewish and other faith groups in the West and beyond.

“Following recent events in France, we are reiterating our protective security advice to Christian places of worship and have circulated specific advice today. We are also taking this opportunity to remind them to review their security arrangements as a precaution.”

The advice comes after Home Secretary Amber Rudd made a prearranged announcement of new measures to combat hate crime, including a £2.4 million fund to pay for extra security at places of worship.

Responding to the announcement after the death of Father Hamel, a Church of England spokesman told the i: “Church buildings are public buildings that are open to all.

“All public ministry involves being vulnerable to others, so security measures are good sense in uncertain times.”

Colonel Richard Kemp, former chairman of the Government’s Cobra Intelligence Group, told the Daily Telegraph that churches could consider adopting guards and patrols during services like some synagogues.