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File photo - Saint-Laurent-sur-Sevre Alamy Stock Photo

Suspect in Nantes cathedral fire held over Catholic priest death

Father Olivier Maire, 60, was killed in the town of Saint-Laurent-sur-Sevre.

A MAN suspected of causing a major fire that ravaged the cathedral in the French city of Nantes last year has been held over the death of a Catholic priest in western France, officials said.

The incident immediately sparked a new row between the far right and the government over immigration less than a year ahead of presidential elections where the issue is expected to loom large.

Father Olivier Maire, 60, was killed in the town of Saint-Laurent-sur-Sevre at the Montfortains religious community where he lived and where the suspect, a Rwandan refugee, had also been given shelter.

“No terrorist motive” is apparent in the case, said the deputy prosecutor of La-Roche-Sur-Yon, Yannick Le Goater, naming the suspect as Emmanuel Abayissenga.

He said Abayissenga gave gendarmes a key to the room where Maire’s body was found.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin described the death on Twitter as “tragic” and said he was heading to the scene.

Suspect hospitalised

A source close to the investigation said a man had earlier gone to police in the town of Mortagne-sur-Sevre and declared he had killed a priest. The man was already under judicial control over the July 2020 fire at Nantes cathedral, the source added.

The source, who asked not to be named, said the priest had been welcoming the man into his church for several months. He appeared to have been killed by blows, although an autopsy will now be carried out.

Abayissenga has confessed to being behind the fire at the Nantes cathedral that horrified France.

He had initially been placed under arrest before being freed on judicial control. He had been undergoing treatment in a psychiatric hospital but had left the institution in late July after receiving treatment for about a month.

Tonight, the suspect’s judicial control was deemed “incompatible with his state of health” and he was re-hospitalised, the source close to the probe said.

‘Deep dismay’

France is on high alert over the risk of attacks in churches after a radical Islamist from Tunisia killed three people in a church in Nice last October. However the source close to the investigation emphasised there appeared to be no link to terror in this killing.

Macron “expressed all his sympathy” to his religious community of Montfortains, while Jean Castex expressed his “deep dismay” and his “deep compassion”, their offices said.

The Nantes blaze came 15 months after the devastating 2019 fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which raised questions about the security risks for other historic churches across France. The man had worked as a volunteer at the Nantes church.

While firefighters were able to contain the Nantes blaze after just two hours and save the main structure, its famed organ dating from 1621, which had survived the French revolution and World War II bombardment, was destroyed.

Also lost were priceless artefacts and paintings, including a work by the 19th-century artist Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin and stained glass windows that contained remnants of 16th-century glass. Repairs are due to take several years.

© – AFP, 2021