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Horrific last moments of Normandy priest Jacques Hamel's life - forced to kneel at altar before his throat was slit

Shocked nun describes the horrifying moment that pair of attackers invaded chapel before killing 84-year-old cleric and wounding worshipper

By Elaine Ganley and Alex Turnbull

Published 27/07/2016

This picture obtained on the website of the Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray parish on July 26, 2016 shows late priest Jacques Hamel celebrating a mass on June 11, 2016 in the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy. AFP/Getty Images
This picture obtained on the website of the Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray parish on July 26, 2016 shows late priest Jacques Hamel celebrating a mass on June 11, 2016 in the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy. AFP/Getty Images
A vehicle of anti-terror Vigipirate plan, dubbed "Operation Sentinelle", is parked outside Saint-Jerome church in Toulouse, southwestern France on July 26, 2016, during a mass in tribute to the victims of the attack in the Normandy city of Saint-Etienne du Rouvray's church in which a priest was killed in the latest of a string of attacks against Western targets claimed by or blamed on the Islamic State jihadist group. French President said that two men who attacked a church and slit the throat of a priest had "claimed to be from Daesh", using the Arabic name for the Islamic State group. Police said they killed two hostage-takers in the attack in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, 125 kilometres (77 miles) north of Paris. / AFP PHOTO / ERIC CABANISERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images
People attend a mass at the Notre-Dame cathedral on July 26, 2016 in Paris, in memory of a priest killed earlier today in the Normandy city of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, in the latest of a string of attacks against Western targets claimed by or blamed on the Islamic State jihadist group. French President Francois Hollande said that two men who attacked a church and slit the throat of a priest had "claimed to be from Daesh", using the Arabic name for the Islamic State group. Police said they killed two hostage-takers in the attack in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, 125 kilometres (77 miles) north of Paris. / AFP PHOTO / GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELTGEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images
Hooded Police officers conduct a search in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy, France, following an attack on a church that left a priest dead, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers invaded a church Tuesday during morning Mass near the Normandy city of Rouen, killing an 84-year-old priest by slitting his throat and taking hostages before being shot and killed by police, French officials said. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Police officers stand in front of a building during a search operation in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy, France, following an attack on a church that left a priest dead, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers invaded a church Tuesday during morning Mass near the Normandy city of Rouen, killing an 84-year-old priest by slitting his throat and taking hostages before being shot and killed by police, French officials said. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
French policemen stand near an armoured vehicle of the French Research and Intervention Brigade (BRI) police during a search in a house on July 26, 2016 in the Normandy village of Saint-Etienne du Rouvray after a priest was killed in the latest of a string of attacks against Western targets claimed by or blamed on the Islamic State jihadist group. French President said that two men who attacked a church and slit the throat of a priest had "claimed to be from Daesh", using the Arabic name for the Islamic State group. Police said they killed two hostage-takers in the attack in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, 125 kilometres (77 miles) north of Paris. / AFP PHOTO / MATTHIEU ALEXANDREMATTHIEU ALEXANDRE/AFP/Getty Images
A French policeman stands near an armoured vehicle of the French Research and Intervention Brigade (BRI) police during a search in a house on July 26, 2016 in the Normandy village of Saint-Etienne du Rouvray after a priest was killed in the latest of a string of attacks against Western targets claimed by or blamed on the Islamic State jihadist group. French President said that two men who attacked a church and slit the throat of a priest had "claimed to be from Daesh", using the Arabic name for the Islamic State group. Police said they killed two hostage-takers in the attack in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, 125 kilometres (77 miles) north of Paris. / AFP PHOTO / MATTHIEU ALEXANDREMATTHIEU ALEXANDRE/AFP/Getty Images
French policemen stand in the street during a search in a house on July 26, 2016 in the Normandy village of Saint-Etienne du Rouvray after a priest was killed in the latest of a string of attacks against Western targets claimed by or blamed on the Islamic State jihadist group. French President said that two men who attacked a church and slit the throat of a priest had "claimed to be from Daesh", using the Arabic name for the Islamic State group. Police said they killed two hostage-takers in the attack in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, 125 kilometres (77 miles) north of Paris. / AFP PHOTO / CHARLY TRIBALLEAUCHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images
In this grab made from video, French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with police and security services personnel after arriving at the scene of the hostage situation in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray Normandy, France, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers took hostages inside a French church during morning Mass on Tuesday near the city of Rouen, killing an 86-year-old priest by slitting his throat before being shot and killed by police, French officials said. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack. (France Pool via AP)
French soldiers stand guard as they prevent the access to the scene of an attack in Saint Etienne du Rouvray, Normandy, France, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers invaded a church Tuesday during morning Mass near the Normandy city of Rouen, killing an 84-year-old priest by slitting his throat and taking hostages before being shot and killed by police, French officials said. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
French police officers prevent the access to the scene of an attack in Saint Etienne du Rouvray, Normandy, France, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers invaded a church Tuesday during morning Mass near the Normandy city of Rouen, killing an 84-year-old priest by slitting his throat and taking hostages before being shot and killed by police, French officials said. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
French soldiers stand guard near the scene of an attack in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy, France, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers invaded a church Tuesday during morning Mass near the Normandy city of Rouen, killing an 84-year-old priest by slitting his throat and taking hostages before being shot and killed by police, French officials said. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
In this grab made from video, police officers close off a road during a hostage situation in Normandy, France, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers seized hostages in a church near the Normandy city of Rouen on Tuesday, killing one hostage by slitting their throat before being killed by police, a security official said. The identities of the attackers and motive for the attack are unclear, according to the official, who was not authorized to be publicly named. (BFM via AP)
In this grab made from video, police officers speak to a driver as they close off a road during a hostage situation in Normandy, France, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers seized hostages in a church near the Normandy city of Rouen on Tuesday, killing one hostage by slitting their throat before being killed by police, a security official said. The identities of the attackers and motive for the attack are unclear, according to the official, who was not authorized to be publicly named. (BFM via AP)
French policemen stand outside a house during a search in a house on July 26, 2016 in the Normandy village of Saint-Etienne du Rouvray after a priest was killed in the latest of a string of attacks against Western targets claimed by or blamed on the Islamic State jihadist group. French President said that two men who attacked a church and slit the throat of a priest had "claimed to be from Daesh", using the Arabic name for the Islamic State group. Police said they killed two hostage-takers in the attack in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, 125 kilometres (77 miles) north of Paris. / AFP PHOTO / MATTHIEU ALEXANDREMATTHIEU ALEXANDRE/AFP/Getty Images
French police officers stand guard in front of the Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray's city hall, Normandy, France, after an attack on a church that left a priest dead, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers invaded a church Tuesday during morning Mass near the Normandy city of Rouen, killing an 84-year-old priest by slitting his throat and taking hostages before being shot and killed by police, French officials said. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Police officers conduct a search in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy, France, following an attack on a church that left a priest dead, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers invaded a church Tuesday during morning Mass near the Normandy city of Rouen, killing an 84-year-old priest by slitting his throat and taking hostages before being shot and killed by police, French officials said. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

A nun has described how an 84-year-old priest was forced to kneel on the floor before his throat was slit at a church in Normandy in France.

The two attackers killed the clergyman celebrating Mass and gravely injured one of the few worshippers present before being shot dead by police.

The Sister, who escaped, said she saw the attackers video themselves and "give a sermon in Arabic" around the altar at the church near Rouen.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the first attack on a church in the West.

Police rescued three other people in the building - including a second nun - in the small north-western town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, said Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet.

A regional Muslim leader said one of the two attackers - both killed outside the church - was known to police. A police official said he had tried to go to Syria.

It was the first known attack claimed by IS inside a church in the West. A church outside Paris was targeted last year, but the attack was never carried out.

A statement by the Islamic State-affiliated Amaq news agency said the attack was carried out by "two soldiers of the Islamic State" in response to calls to target nations in the US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria.

The statement echoed claims in other recent attacks in France and neighbouring Germany. It repeated its threat to Western "crusaders". The RAID special intervention force searched for possible explosives in or around the church.

The nun said the priest was forced to the ground before his throat was slit.

Identified as Sister Danielle, she told BFM television: "They forced him to his knees. He wanted to defend himself, and that's when the tragedy happened."

She said the attackers recorded themselves. "They did a sort of sermon around the altar in Arabic. It's a horror."

Dominique Lebrun, the Archbishop of Rouen, confirmed the death of 84-year-old Rev Jacques Hamel. "I cry out to God, with all men of goodwill. And I invite all non-believers to unite with this cry," Rev Lebrun wrote in a statement from Krakow, Poland.

"The Catholic Church has no other arms besides prayer and fraternity between men."

French President Francois Hollande, arriving at the scene, called it a "vile terrorist attack" and one more sign that France was at war with the Islamic State group, which has claimed a string of attacks on the country and two in Germany.

Town mayor Hubert Wulfranc, in tears, denounced the "barbarism" and, breaking down, pleaded: "Let us together be the last to cry."

A police official said one of the attackers had been turned back after trying to go to Syria. The official said the man was under police supervision and wore an electronic bracelet to monitor his movements. Mohammed Karabila, head of the Regional Council of the Muslim Faith for Haute-Normandie, said French security services knew the name of one of the attackers. "The person who committed this odious act is known and he has been followed by the police for at least one-and-a-half years. He went to Turkey and security services were alerted after this," he said.

The Pope condemned the attack in the strongest terms.

Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi said Pope Francis expressed his "pain and horror for this absurd violence, with the strongest condemnation for every form of hatred and prayer for those affected".

France is on high alert and under a state of emergency after an attack in the southern city of Nice on Bastille Day - July 14 - that killed 84 people and was claimed by Islamic State, as well as a series of attacks last year which killed 147 others around Paris.

Islamic State extremists have urged followers to attack French churches and the group is believed to have planned at least one church attack earlier.

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