Priest, 85, forced to kneel before his throat was slit in Normandy

French soldiers stand guard as they prevent  the access to the scene of an attack in Saint Etienne du Rouvray, Normandy, France, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers invaded a church Tuesday during morning Mass near the Normandy city of Rouen, killing an 84-year-old priest by slitting his throat and taking hostages before being shot and killed by police, French officials said. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

French soldiers stand guard as they prevent the access to the scene of an attack in Saint Etienne du Rouvray, Normandy, France, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers invaded a church Tuesday during morning Mass near the Normandy city of Rouen, killing an 84-year-old priest by slitting his throat and taking hostages before being shot and killed by police, French officials said. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

A nun has described how an 85-year-old priest was forced to kneel on the floor before his throat was slit during an attack on a church in Normandy.

Father Jacques Hamel was reported to have had his throat slashed during an hour-long hostage-taking incident which began as two knifemen burst into the parish church by a back door during morning mass.

In this grab made from video, French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with police and security services personnel after arriving at the scene of the hostage situation in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray Normandy, France, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers took hostages inside a French church during morning Mass on Tuesday near the city of Rouen, killing an 86-year-old priest by slitting his throat before being shot and killed by police, French officials said. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack. (France Pool via AP)

In this grab made from video, French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with police and security services personnel after arriving at the scene of the hostage situation in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray Normandy, France, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Two attackers took hostages inside a French church during morning Mass on Tuesday near the city of Rouen, killing an 86-year-old priest by slitting his throat before being shot and killed by police, French officials said. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack. (France Pool via AP)

An eyewitness identified as Sister Danielle was in the church when he was killed.

She said: “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,” she told BFM television.

Sister Danielle went on to describe the minister as a “great priest”.

In light of the attack, French President Francois Hollande pledged to fight the Islamic State terror group “using all means possible”.

The attack sent shock waves through a nation already reeling from the murder of 84 people in Nice on July 14, when a Tunisian national drove a lorry into crowds enjoying Bastille Day fireworks, as well as earlier atrocities directed at rock fans and sports crowds and the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.

At a press conference in Downing Street, Prime Minister Theresa May offered “my condolences to the French people following the sickening attack in Northern France this morning”, adding: “Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected.”

Speaking after meeting emergency workers and the town mayor in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Mr Hollande named Islamic State - also known as Daesh - as the source of an “extremely high” threat to French people.

He added: “We are faced with a group, Daesh, that has actually declared war, and we have to fight this war using all means possible. Of course we have to respect the rule of law, because we are a democracy.”

Speaking in Downing Street, Mrs May said: “We all face a terror threat. If you look at the national threat level here in the United Kingdom, it is at severe. That means that a terrorist attack is highly likely.

“What is necessary is for us all to work together, and stand shoulder to shoulder with France. We offer them every support we have in dealing with this issue and this threat that they, and the rest of us, are facing.

“But on one thing, I think, we are all absolutely clear, and that is the terrorists will not prevail.

“They are trying to destroy our way of life. They are trying to destroy our values. We have shared values and those values will win through and the terrorists will not win.”

Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny said after talks with Mrs May in Downing Street that it was “particularly brutal” to visit “terror and murder” on a place of worship.

“Our hearts are once again with the French people. For centuries a church has always been a place of sanctuary,” he said.

Local media reported witnesses said the men shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they came out of the building. One was described as bearded and wearing a Muslim skullcap.

As bomb squad officers searched the church for possible booby-traps, one member of the congregation of four - who included two nuns - was rushed to hospital “between life and death” suffering from serious injuries. Another worshipper was said to have been less severely hurt.

Local Muslim leader, Mohammed Karabila, president of the Regional Council of the Muslim Faith for Haute-Normandie, said one of the attackers was known to French police and had travelled to Turkey.

He told the Associated Press that “the person that did this odious act is known, and he has been followed by the police for at least a year and a half”.

He added the attacker “went to Turkey and security services were alerted after this”.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the latest attack in a statement published on Tuesday by the IS-affiliated Aamaq news agency.

Religious leaders, including those from the Muslim community, issued messages of sympathy and solidarity in the wake of the killing.

In a statement, the Vatican said Pope Francis shares the “sorrow and horror” felt over the incident, adding: “We are particularly struck because this horrible violence has occurred in a church - a sacred place where we pronounce God’s love - with the barbaric murder of a priest and worshippers affected.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said: “Evil attacks the weakest, denies truth and love, is defeated through Jesus Christ. Pray for France, for victims, for their communities.”