By James McAuley,
PARIS — Three people were killed in a knife attack at a church in the southern French city of Nice on Thursday, an act prosecutors were treating as possible terrorism and which prompted the country to raise its security alert to the highest level.
The attack came amid tensions between France and some Muslim nations over cartoons denigrating the prophet Muhammad — and less than less than two weeks after the beheading of a middle school teacher in the Paris suburbs who showed those cartoons to his students.
It also follows a declaration from President Emmanuel Macron that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis” and needs to be “reformed” within France.
The French government has continued its defense of the Muhammad caricatures as freedom of expression, while maintaining that the problem is radicalization. That stance has led to calls for a boycott of French products across the Muslim world, along with threats from radical Islamist groups. France had warned its citizens in certain Muslim countries to exert extra caution.
So the immediate question on Thursday — the birthday of the prophet — was whether the Nice stabbing was related to those threats. The stabbing was accompanied by smaller incidents elsewhere in France and in Saudi Arabia, where a man stabbed a security guard outside the French consulate in Jiddah.
The attack in Nice occurred near the Basilica of Notre-Dame de L’Assomption, shortly after 9 a.m. Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi said that three people were confirmed dead, and that the attacker repeatedly shouted “Allahu Akbhar,” or “God is greatest” in Arabic.
Security forces guard the area after a reported knife attack at Notre Dame church in Nice, France, October 29, 2020.
France’s anti-terrorist prosecutor to open an investigation for “assassination” and “attempted assassination.”
According to Estrosi and to French media reports citing police sources, one of the three victims, a woman, had her throat slashed inside the church. The second victim, a man, was stabbed to death. The third known victim, another woman, was killed in a bar in front of the basilica where she had hidden.
The attacker was neutralized by French police and taken to hospital, according to media reports, and French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin convened a crisis cell in Paris.
Twitter / @cestrosi
Twitter / @cestrosi Via Reuters
Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi gives a statement at the site of a knife attack in a church in Nice, France, Oct. 29, 2020.
Also on Thursday, a man attacked a security guard outside the French consulate in the Saudi Arabian city of Jiddah. The security guard was taken to hospital and did not suffer life-threatening injuries, the French consulate said in a statement. Saudi authorities confirmed that the attacker had been arrested.
The French press additionally reported that approximately two hours after the Nice stabbing, police shot dead a man in Avignon who had been threatening a passerby with a knife. Authorities apprehended another man brandishing a knife in central Lyon, near the Perrache train station, according to the regional newspaper Le Progrès.
Less than two weeks before the Nice attack, the nation was shocked by a gruesome beheading of Samuel Paty, middle school teacher in the Paris suburbs who had shown his students caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. Estrosi told France’s BFM television that the throat slashing in the basilica bore a clear resemblance to the beheading of Paty.
Macron’s emphatic defense of the caricatures, which are seen as insulting by many Muslims, has put him at odds with a number of countries. Those cartoons were published again in the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in September, which Samuel Paty, the teacher, had shown to his students as part of a lesson on free expression.
French President Emmanuel Macron visits the scene of a reported knife attack at Notre Dame church in Nice, France, October 29, 2020.
Charlie Hebdo was victim of a major terrorist attack in January 2015, after previously publishing the Muhammad cartoons by two brothers who killed 12 journalists and claimed they had “avenged the prophet” as they fled the scene.
Amid strategic disputes with France over the civil war in Libya and Turkey’s claims to energy deposits in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Macron’s defense of the caricatures and general treatment of Muslims in France suggested he “needs treatment on a mental level.”
Turkey, which had not condemned the attack on Paty, and led the calls for a boycott of French products, released a statement Thursday condemning the bloodshed in Nice and offering condolences to relatives of the victims.
“No reason can excuse the killing of a person and legitimize violence,” said the statement, released by Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It is clear that those who organized a brutal attack like this one in a holy place of worship do not have their share of religious, human, and moral values.”
The killing of Paty breathed new life into the Macron government’s plans to reform the practice of Islam in France, mostly by targeting the foreign funding that Muslim communities receive in the hopes of combating links to foreign radicals. The government also announced a crackdown on more than 50 Muslim organizations it has accused of fomenting terrorist violence.
In 2016, Nice was rocked by a devastating terrorist attack on Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, that killed 86 people on the coastal Mediterranean city’s historic seaside Promenade des Anglais.
Thursday’s stabbing also recalled the July 2016 killing of Jacques Hamel, an 85-year-old priest who was in the midst of giving a mass in the small village of Saint Étienne du Rouvray when a terrorist slashed his throat.
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.