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Murdered priest's sister rejects hate as Macron attends commemoration

Roseline Hamel (L) with Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray mayor Joachim Moyse (C) and President Emmanuel Macron unveil a plaque after the ceremony CharlyTriballeau/AFP

The jihadists who murdered a French priest in front of his altar failed to whip up fear and hatred, President Emmanuel Macron declared at a ceremony to mark the annivesary of the killing. Ministers, Catholic and Muslim leaders attended the event to pay homage to Father Jacques Hamel, whose throat was cut as he celebrated mass in a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray on the outskirts of Rouen.

Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean murdered the 85-year-old priest at 9.00am on 26 July 2016 in front of a congregation of five, also stabbing, but failing to kill, parishioner Guy Coponet in front of his wife.

"At the foot of his altar the two terrorists surely believed they were sowing a thirst for vengeance and reprisals among the Catholics of France," Macron declared. "They failed."

"No, hate did not triumph and will not triumph," Rouen Archbishop Dominique Lebrun, who officiated, said.

The three nuns who were in the congregation at the time of the attack attended Wednesday's ceremony but 87-year-old Coponet, who underwent two operations, and his wife, Janine, did not, apparently because the memory is too painful.

Also present were Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, Interior Minister Gérard Collomb, Anouar Kbibech, who has just retired as head of the French Muslim grouping CFCM, and 14 members of Hamel's family.

Sectarian division rejected

"Jacques was a spiritual guide for us all," Hamel's sister Roseline told RFI. "He was friends to many people. For some he was a family friend, for others, a man they turned to in times of difficulty. He was a humanist."

Hundreds of people watched the ceremony on giant screen outside the church and a "republican monument to peace and fraternity" was unveiled in afterwards.

The Sunday after the murder Muslims attended mass in Catholic churches throughout France as a sign of interfaith solidarity and the two communities in the suburbs of Rouen made a point of rejecting sectarian responses to the attack.

The rector of the Paris mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, on Tuesday called on "all the Muslims of France" to support the homage to the dead priest describing the killers, who declared allegiance to the Islamic State armed group, as "individuals without faith or law".

"We’ve approached the last year in a spirit of hope and willingness to learn from one another, understand one another, even if our opinions differ, whether we're believers or not or from different faiths," Roseline Hamel said before the ceremony. "We need to learn to live with different cultures and ways of living your religion and not confuse difference and indifference, as my brother would say."

Kermiche and Petitjean were killed by police as they came out of the church.

One of Petitjean's cousins and a 22-year-old from Toulouse who met the pair at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray before the attack are in jail, suspected of complicity.

Pope backs fast-track beatification

"When I think of them [his killers], I don’t feel hatred or anger but, as a mother, I think of how much their parents must be suffering," Roseline Hamel said. "I think of parents who were powerless, who received no help when their child, however well educated, took a wrong turn and whose mind got warped.  I feel so sorry for them."

Jacques Hamel is expected to beatified as a martyr by the Catholic church and Pope Francis has asked for the requirement of a five-year interlude between the subject's death and the start of the process be waived.