Pope Francis has said he is mourning death of a French priest murdered by an immigrant awaiting trial for an arson attack on Nantes Cathedral.
Fr Olivier Maire, 60, head of the Montfort missionaries at Saint-Laurent-sur-Sevre, was providing shelter to Emmanuel Abayisenga when he was allegedly beaten to death.
The 40-year-old Rwandan Hutu surrendered to police and admitted to the murder and gave officers the key to the room in the abbey where he had left the priest’s body, according to reports in the French media.
During his General Audience two days later, the Pope said it was “with great pain” that he learned of Fr Maire’s death, and offered his condolences to all French Catholics as well as members of the priest’s family and order.
“I assure you of my participation (in the mourning) and my spiritual closeness,” the Holy Father said.
French bishops had earlier issued a statement in which they said they spoke of their “immense sadness and horror” at the killing.
“He was a victim of his generosity,” Bishop François Jacolin of Luçon told Vatican News. “We hope that this tragedy might not destroy the ideal of hospitality and sharing.”
Although police have dismissed terrorism as a motivation, the murder has shocked France and has bitterly divided its politicians, with many questioning why Abayisenga was free to reoffend while awaiting trial for the arson attack of July last year.
President Emmanuel Macron responded to criticism by assuring the French public that protecting people of faith was “a priority” for his government.
Abayisenga faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted of committing arson at a Gothic cathedral considered to be a jewel of French architecture. The Cathedral of Ss Peter and Paul was built between 1434 and 1891 and has been designated an historic monument by the government because of its architectural significance.
While employed there, Abayisenga, a Catholic, allegedly lit two fires in the area of a 17th century organ in July 2020, and a third above an electrical panel, destroying the organ along with much of the choir and some stained glass windows. Repairs to the building are expected to take years to complete.
The previous year, his application for asylum failed and he was served with an expulsion order. A condition of his bail ahead of his impending trial, however, was that he must not leave French territory.
He had been remanded in custody until late May when he was released under judicial supervision and confined to the abbey, leaving only for treatment at a psychiatric hospital in July.
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