Man shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ kills three at French church, terrorism investigation opened

By James McAuley,

Eric Gaillard Reuters

A security officer secures the area after a reported knife attack at Notre Dame church in Nice, France, Oct. 29, 2020.

PARIS — Three people were killed in a knife attack at a church in the southern French city of Nice on Thursday, prompting France’s anti-terrorist prosecutor to open an investigation for “assassination” and “attempted assassination.”

French President Emmanuel Macron was heading to the scene, the Élysée Palace confirmed. The attack comes amid rising tensions between France and some Muslim nations over cartoons denigrating the prophet Muhammad. The attack fell on the prophet’s birthday.

The stabbing occurred near the Basilica of Notre-Dame de L’Assomption shortly after 9 a.m. Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi said that three people were confirmed dead, and that the attacker repeatedly shouted “Allahu Akbhar,” or “God is greatest” in Arabic.

According to Estrosi and to French media reports citing police sources, one of the three victims, a woman, had her throat slashed inside the church. The second victim, a man, was stabbed to death. The third known victim, another woman, was killed in a bar in front of the basilica where she had hidden.

[France mourns teacher Samuel Paty as government mobilizes against Muslim groups]

The attacker was neutralized by French police and taken to hospital, according to media reports, and French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin convened a crisis cell in Paris.

Twitter / @cestrosi

Twitter / @cestrosi Via Reuters

Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi gives a statement at the site of a knife attack in a church in Nice, France, Oct. 29, 2020.

Also on Thursday, a man attacked a security guard outside the French consulate in the Saudi Arabian city of Jiddah. The security guard was taken to hospital and did not suffer life-threatening injuries, the French consulate said in a statement. Saudi authorities confirmed that the attacker had been arrested.

The French press likewise reported that approximately two hours after the Nice stabbing, police shot dead a man who had been threatening a passerby with a knife.

Less than two weeks earlier, the nation was shocked by a gruesome beheading of a middle school teacher in the Paris suburbs who had shown his students caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. Estrosi told France’s BFM television that the throat slashing in the basilica bore a clear resemblance to to the beheading of Samuel Paty, the slain teacher.

It also recalled the July 2016 killing of Jacques Hamel, an 85-year-old priest who was in the midst of giving a mass in the small village of Saint Étienne du Rouvray when a terrorist slashed his throat.

Macron’s emphatic defense of the caricatures, which are seen as insulting by many Muslims, has put him at odds with a number of countries. Those cartoons were published again in the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in September, which Samuel Paty, the teacher, had shown to his students as part of a lesson on free expression.

Charlie Hebdo was victim of another terrorist attack in January 2015 after previously publishing the Muhammad cartoons by two brothers who killed 12 journalists and claimed they had “avenged the prophet” as they fled the scene.

Amid strategic disputes with France over the civil war in Libya and Turkey’s claims to energy deposits in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Macron’s defense of the caricatures and general treatment of Muslims in France suggested he “needs treatment on a mental level.” Calls to boycott French products followed across the Muslim world.

The killing of Paty breathed new life into the Macron government’s plans to reform the practice of Islam in France, mostly by targeting the foreign funding that Muslim communities receive in the hopes of combating links to foreign radicals. The government also announced a crackdown on more than 50 Muslim organizations it has accused of fomenting terrorist violence

In 2016, the coastal Mediterranean city was rocked by a devastating terrorist attack on Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, that killed 86 people on the historic seaside Promenade des Anglais.

Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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