French police hunt assailant who shot and wounded Orthodox priest in church


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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A light installation is seen in 2015 on the banks of the Saone River in Lyon, France

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By Marc Angrand and Sarah White

PARIS (Reuters) – A Greek Orthodox priest was shot and injured on Saturday at a church in the centre of the French city of Lyon by an assailant who then fled, a police source and witnesses said.

The priest was fired on twice at around 4 p.m. (1500 GMT) as he was closing the church, and he was being treated for life-threatening injuries, the source said.

Witnesses said the church was Greek Orthodox. Another police source said the priest was of Greek nationality, and had been able to tell emergency services as they arrived that he had not recognised his assailant.

A Greek government official identified the priest as Nikolaos Kakavelakis.

There was no indication from French officials that the attack was terrorism-related. The French anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office had not been brought in, as is normal when law enforcement officials suspect a terrorism link, France’s BFMTV broadcaster said.

The incident came two days after a man shouting “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Greatest) beheaded a woman and killed two other people in a church in Nice.

Two weeks ago, a schoolteacher in a Paris suburb was beheaded by an 18-year-old attacker who was apparently incensed by the teacher showing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad during a class.

While the motive for Saturday’s attack was not known, government ministers had warned that there could be other Islamist militant attacks. President Emmanuel Macron has deployed thousands of soldiers to protect sites such as places of worship and schools.

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Prime Minister Jean Castex, who was visiting Rouen, said he was heading back to Paris to assess the situation.

The Nice attack took place on the day Muslims celebrate the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. Many Muslims around the world have been angered about France’s defence of the right to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet.

A third person has been taken into police custody in connection with that attack, a police source said on Saturday. The suspected assailant was shot by police and remained in critical condition in hospital.

Macron took to Arabic-language airwaves on Saturday, saying he understood the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad may shock some people but that there was no justification for acts of violence.

In an interview with Al Jazeera released on Saturday, Macron said his position had been misconstrued: that he never supported publication of cartoons seen as insulting by Muslims, but had defended the right of free expression.

“I understand and I respect the fact that people might be shocked by these caricatures, but I will never accept any justification for acts of violence over these caricatures,” Macron said.

The teacher killed on Oct. 16, Samuel Paty, had showed cartoons in class to prompt discussion of free speech.

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