A nun who escaped the Islamic State (IS) attack on Fr Jacques Hamel said the 86-year-old priest was forced to his knees before he throat was slit.
The nun, identified as Sr Danielle, said she saw the two attackers video themselves and “give a sermon in Arabic” around the altar at the church near Rouen in Normandy.
IS has claimed responsibility for the attack, the first in a church in the West.
Sr Danielle told BFM television: ‘They forced him to his knees. He wanted to defend himself. And that’s when the tragedy happened.”
“They recorded themselves. They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic. It’s a horror.”
Of her fallen colleague, she said: “He was a great priest.”
Police rescued three other people inside the church — including a second nun — in the north-western town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, said interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet. One person injured in the attack is no longer in a life-threatening condition.
A regional Muslim leader said one of the two attackers — both killed outside the church — was known to police. A police official said he had tried to go to Syria.
Mohammed Karabila, head of the Regional Council of the Muslim Faith for Haute-Normandie, said: “The person who committed this odious act is known and he has been followed by the police for at least one and a half years. He went to Turkey and security services were alerted after this.”
Adel Kermiche, 19, was arrested in Germany in March 2015 trying to join extremists in Syria using his brother’s ID, and was then arrested in Turkey two months later using a cousin’s ID.
Kermiche was wearing an electronic tag when killed, said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.
A 16-year-old, believed to be the younger brother of someone wanted by police for trying to go to Syria or Iraq in 2015, has also been detained as part of the investigation.
It was the first known attack claimed by IS inside a church in the West. A church outside Paris was targeted last year, but the attack never was carried out.
A statement published by the IS-affiliated Amaq news agency said the attack was carried out by “two soldiers of the Islamic State” who acted in response to calls to target nations in the US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria.
The statement echoed claims in other recent attacks in France and neighbouring Germany. It repeated its threat to Western “crusaders”.
The RAID special intervention force carried out a search for possible explosives in or around the church.
“The investigations are ongoing. There are still unknowns,” said Mr Brandet.
“There are dogs, explosive detectors and bomb disposal services” at the church outside Rouen.
The priest “was always ready to help,” said Rouen diocese official Philippe Mahut. He said Fr Hamel had been at the church for the past decade.
“Sometimes he was running all around, and his desire was to spread a message for which he consecrated his life,” said Mr Mahut.
“And he certainly didn’t think that consecrating his life would mean for him to die while celebrating a Mass, which is a message of love.”
French president Francois Hollande, arriving on the scene, called it a “vile terrorist attack” and one more sign that France is at war with IS, which has claimed a string of attacks on France plus two in Germany.
“We must lead this war with all our means,” he said, adding that he was calling a meeting of representatives of all religions for today.
He expressed solidarity with local Catholics, saying “they have been terribly hit by the killing of the parish priest by two terrorists claiming to belong to Daesh. I have met with the family of the priest.”
The town mayor, Hubert Wulfranc, denounced the “barbarism” and, breaking down, pleaded: “Let us together be the last to cry.”
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