Four go on trial over militant murder of French priest

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PARIS, Feb 14 (Reuters) – Four men went on trial on Monday over the murder of an elderly priest who was knifed to death at his altar in a militant attack that rocked France.

Father Jacques Hamel was leading morning mass in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in July 2016 when two attackers stormed in, forced the 85-year-old to his knees and slit his throat. They were both shot dead by police.

The four defendants have been charged with complicity in the attack and “criminal terrorist association”. Prosecutors have said the men, who were all born in France, were in contact with the attackers.

Three of the men appeared in the dock in the historic Palais de Justice courthouse in Paris. Before the hearing, their lawyers said they were innocent, Radio Franceinfo reported.

The fourth defendant, Rachid Kassim, who prosecutors say contacted the attackers from Syria and encouraged them to kill the priest, is being tried in absentia.

The U.S. military said they targeted Kassim, who they described as a senior Islamic State militant, in a strike near the city of Mosul, Iraq, in February 2017, though they did not say whether he was killed.

Hamel’s murder was the first Islamist militant attack on a church in western Europe and came just 12 days after a Tunisian who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State drove his truck through a crowd of Bastille Day revellers in Nice, killing 84.

Pope Francis said Father Hamel was a martyr.

More than 230 people were killed in a series of Islamist-inspired attacks between 2015 and 2017 in France.

Photo – A picture of Father Jacques Hamel, the 85-year-old priest who was murdered by two jihadists is on display during Hamel’s funeral at the Rouen cathedral in Rouen, France, 02 August 2016. EPA/CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/POOL

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