French Court Convicts Four Men in Connection to Islamic State Murder of Catholic Priest

The priest was 85 years old at the time of the 2016 attack

Four men were found guilty for their roles in a terrorist conspiracy stemming from the 2016 murder of a Catholic priest in Normandy.

Father Jacques Hamel died after two attackers slit his throat in front of a group of hostages that included an elderly couple and two nuns in his church Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy, France. At least one other churchgoer was harmed in the attack which was claimed by the Islamic State. 

Hamel was 85 at the time of the July 26, 2016 attack.

Police later killed the teenage attackers, Abdel Malik Petitjean and Adel Kermiche, as they left the church. Petitjean and Kermiche claimed in a video they were members of a terrorist organization.

The four men tried in a Parisian court were accused of having aided or encouraged the attack.

Only three of the defendants appeared in court. They argued that while they associated with Petitjean and Kermiche, they were not themselves terrorists. They also asked for forgiveness during the trial.

The judge ultimately ruled they were guilty of criminal association with terrorists.

Jean-Philippe Steven Jean-Louis, 25, was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He had traveled with Petitjean through Turkey to Syria in the weeks before the attack and shared his views on Islam on Telegram.

Fraid Khelil, a 36-year-old cousin of one of the attackers, knew of the planned attack and supported it, according to prosecutors. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. 

As part of his defense, Khelil made “an apparent effort to distance himself from the religious extremists” and “testified at the trial that he is bisexual, non-religious and spent his time drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis,” per AP News.

Yassine Sebaihia, 27, was sentenced to eight years in prison. He had visited Kermiche two days before the attack and was aware of his plans. Prosecutors said he has been seeking “religious lessons” from the attacker.

The only defendant who did not appear in court was Rachid Kassim. Kassim was sentenced to life in prison for his role as an Islamic State recruiter and for using social media to encourage the attack on Father Hamel. 

The Frenchman had previously been sentenced to life in absentia in 2019 after he ordered a failed attack near the Notre Dame Cathedral. Kassim possibly died in 2017 in Iraq following a drone strike. His death has not been confirmed

In an audio recording discovered by investigators, Kassim told the attackers, “Pounce on the infidels like a hungry lion pounces on its prey.”

In the days after the attack, witnesses testified the attackers yelled “Allahu Akbar” and forced Hamel to kneel.

“They forced him to his knees. He wanted to defend himself. And that’s when the tragedy happened,” testified one of the nuns, known as Sister Danielle, per Fox News.

In October 2016, Pope Francis granted the French catholic church permission to begin a sainthood investigation for Hamel. Typically the Vatican requires a waiting period of five years before it will authorize a sainthood investigation. 

Hamel’s murder was just over a year and a half after the January 2015 jihadist attack at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French newspaper, that left more than 25o people dead.

The Archbishop of Rouen released a statement saying the convictions were an act of justice and for the “good of society.”

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