The murder of an elderly Roman Catholic priest in a church in northern France has been one of the headline stories in the news over the past few days. The killing came in the wake of a series of terrorist atrocities in France and in Germany, and yet it somehow stood out.
There was something particularly shocking about the murder of the priest within a church building. Churches are generally seen as places of sanctuary and safety. Yet, in this case, the murder took place in a place of worship.
Here in Northern Ireland, down through the years of the Troubles, we saw a number of occasions when people were murdered in churches, or when they were entering or leaving a place of worship.
David Stanley Wray was a member of the RUC Reserve in Londonderry and was married with two children. The family attended Claremont Presbyterian Church. On Sunday, May 20, 1979, he had just got out of his car to go into the morning service when two IRA gunmen murdered him in front of his two teenage children.
Norman Duddy was an inspector in the RUC, and had been stationed in Londonderry for 22 years. He served on the committee of Strand Presbyterian Church and also sang in the choir. On the morning of Sunday, March 28, 1982, he was murdered by two masked IRA gunmen as he was leaving the church with his young sons after the morning service.
Karen McKeown was a Sunday school teacher in Albertbridge Congregational Church in east Belfast and was also active in the Girls’ Brigade and the church youth group. The 20-year-old student was murdered on October 17, 1982, by an INLA gunman. He came up behind Karen and shot her in the back of the head as she was standing outside the church.
Judge William Doyle, meanwhile, was murdered on Sunday, January 16, 1983, as he left midday Mass at St Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church at Derryvolgie Avenue in south Belfast. He had just got into his car to drive away when two IRA gunmen approached the vehicle and opened fire, hitting him five times and seriously injuring a 72-year-old woman sitting beside him.
Mountain Lodge Pentecostal Church in south Armagh was the scene of a multiple murder on Sunday, November 20, 1983. The evening service was under way and the congregation were singing the old gospel hymn, Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb? Suddenly, republican gunmen entered the building and killed three of the elders — John Victor Cunningham, David Wilson and William Harold Brown. Seven other people in the little church were wounded by the attackers.
The shocking murders were later claimed by the Catholic Reaction Force, but it is widely believed that the killers were members of the INLA.
Mary Travers was shot dead on Sunday, April 8, 1984, as she was leaving St Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church with her family. Her father was a judge. Later, Danny Morrison described the murder as “regrettable, but understandable”.
The IRA also murdered Patrick Thomas Kerr, a Roman Catholic prison officer, on February 17, 1985, as he was leaving a service in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh. Two of his children were with him and witnessed the killing of their father, who was shot three times in the head at point-blank range.
Cardinal O Fiaich later said: “Can anyone conceive of a greater crime than to murder a man in front of his family as he was coming from worshipping God?”
The IRA also murdered Sergeant Hugh McCormac, a member of the RUC, on Sunday, March 3, 1985. Mr McCormac sang in the choir at St Gabriel’s Retreat at the Graan, near Enniskillen, and had just arrived with his family when he was killed by two terrorist gunmen.
The republican movement wants to rewrite the past, to impose its perverted narrative of the Troubles and to shift the blame on to others.
That is why it is of paramount importance to remember the reality of what was done by the IRA and other terrorists.