Minister: French priest killed by cathedral-fire suspect

U.S. and World

PARIS (AP) — A priest was killed Monday in a small town in western France allegedly by a Rwandan man he had housed who was already under investigation for setting a fire to the Cathedral of Nantes a year ago, France’s interior minister said.

Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin spoke after meeting with officials and religious leaders in Saint-Laurent-sur-Sevre in the Vendee region. He confirmed press reports that the suspect in the killing was a Rwandan man who allegedly set fire in July 2020 to the gothic cathedral where he worked as a volunteer. He had been refused political asylum in France after living in the country since 2012.

After the killing, the suspect “testified (to gendarmes) that he killed the priest.” Darmanin said.

Catholic officials identified the slain priest as Olivier Maire, 61, head of the Community of Montfort, missionary order active in western France and numerous countries. The regional bishop, Francois Jacolin, called Maire a “man of the heart.”

“He and his community were victims of their generosity,” he said on French TV, standing in front of the old stone community home.

The prosecutor’s office handling the case said the suspect, Emmanuel Abayisenga, handed over the keys to the community’s car he drove and the keys to the room where he was staying. He said gendarmes should “put him in prison.” Maire’s body was then found in the room.

The prosecutor’s statement said the Montfort community home took in Abayisenga after judicial authorities investigating the fire allowed him to leave prison May 31 under judicial control. He was then hospitalized for psychiatric exams until July 29, when he returned to the order.

Right-wing politicans, including far-right leader Marine Le Pen, denounced the government for allowing a Rwandan man already under investigation in a dramatic church fire to be out of jail and still living in France despite expulsion orders.

Darmanin, who has a reputation as being tough on immigration, said critics’ remarks were incorrect because the suspect was under a court order not to leave France.

“The charity, the spirit of welcome, that governed the (Catholic) church … (but) ended in a drama is a point of honor that we must salute,” he said.

The suspect had admitted that he had set three fires in the cathedral that he had been tasked with locking up.

The head of the religious community of Montfort, Santino Brambilla, speaking on BFMTV, said he was not angry at the suspect even after Maire was killed.

“This is a human drama, but the suffering is great,” Brambilla said.

There was no immediate indication that the slaying was linked to terrorism, and the interior minister said the suspect was not on any watch list.

In 2016, the Rev. Jacques Hamel was slain as he said Mass in his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, outside Rouen. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for that slaying.

Last October, a sacristan and two faithful were knifed to death inside the basilica in Nice, an attack attributed to an Islamist extremist.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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