ROME—Only three weeks after the brutal slaying of French Father Jacques Hamel, murdered by two men professing allegiance to the Islamic State, French President Francois Hollande visited Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday.
It’s the first private audience the pontiff has had with a political leader in the month of August. Although he hasn’t left Rome, as his predecessors typically did during summertime, during July and August Francis has had a somewhat reduced public agenda.
After Hollande and Francis spoke privately for roughly 40 minutes, the French president and other officials also met with Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, in effect the Vatican’s foreign minister.
Francis also presented Hollande with three documents: His encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si, and his two apostolic exhortations, Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia.
Although the Vatican did not disclose any information on the content of the conversation between Francis and Hollande, French officials anticipated beforehand that the murder of Hamel on July 26 would be at the top of the agenda.
Hollande began his Rome visit on Wednesday with a moment of private reflection at the French National Church, San Luigi dei Francesi. In recent months, the church, located near Rome’s famed Piazza Navona, has hosted a chapel in honor to the victims of terrorism.
Inside the church, Hollande stood in silence in front of the chapel, which, since the Paris attacks last November, has been a place of pilgrimage for French visitors in Rome. After the murder of Hamel, the elderly priest’s picture was placed on the altar.
Although he was raised a Catholic, Hollande later became agnostic and today defines himself as an atheist who, although respecting all religious practices, has none of his own.
After the visit to San Luigi dei Francesi, Hollande told journalists that he was thankful to Francis for his words of support towards the French people, and said that during their meeting he was planning to address the situation of Christians in the Middle East.
“Both of us, at our own level, have a vocation to protect Christians in the Middle East. Logically, the pope knows the role Christians play in keeping the equilibrium in the region,” he said.
Another issue Hollande said he wanted to discuss with Francis was the migrants and refugee crisis, which he says “challenges us to think about our vision of the world,” and to come up with wide-ranging solutions instead of being governed by fear.
His government, Hollande said, has the responsibility of protecting everyone in France, regardless of their faith, because “this is the meaning of laïcité [the French term for church/state separation]: to protect every religion, and the freedom to believe and not to believe.”
On the day of Hamel’s killing, the two leaders spoke on the phone. It was Holland who called Francis, and according to reports at the time, the conversation lasted 20 minutes.
The following day, on his way to Poland, Francis told journalists travelling with him that “the world is at war,” insisting, however, it’s not fundamentally a religious clash.
“It’s a real war, not a religious war,” the pope said.
“It’s a war of interests, a war for money. A war for natural resources and for the dominion of the peoples. Some might say it’s a religious war. Every religion wants peace. The war is wanted by the others. Understood?” he said.
Referring to Hamel, Francis said: “This holy priest who died in the very moment he was offering a prayer for the whole Church, is [only] one, but there are so many Christians, so many innocents, so many children … let’s think about Nigeria … ‘But it’s Africa’ … But it’s war!”
Before being murdered by Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean, Hamel was forced to kneel down. The terrorist slit his throat in front of a small group of faithful who were attending morning Mass before being taken hostage by the terrorists.
The perpetrators were shot dead by police officials, who arrived on the scene 40 minutes after the kidnapping began, thanks to a nun who had managed to escape and alert them.
The attack in a parish in the rural town Saint Etienne du Rouvray was the first committed in the name of the Islamic State against a church in the West, although it’s far from being their first attack on a church, or from being the first attack they managed to orchestrate in Europe.
The July 26 attack came only days after a jihadist drove a truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day on the seafront in the French coastal town of Niece. The man killed 85 people and wounded more than 400.
The Nice attack was the third major strike on France in 18 months, including one last November in Paris, where IS-inspired terrorists killed 130 people at restaurants, a concert hall and the national stadiums. Two recent attacks in Germany, and another in Brussels, all claimed by the group have increased jitters across Europe.
In Syria and Iraq, where the terrorist Islamic organization originated, Daesh (ISIS) has killed thousands of Christians and members of other minorities, and destroyed hundreds of churches, schools and hospitals, which has led many countries, including the United States, to declare ISIS is perpetrating genocide.
Wednesday’s was the second visit Hollande has paid to Pope Francis, the first coming in January 2014.
Since then, the relations between the Vatican and the leader of France’s Socialist party have had periods of tension, triggered by the president’s attempt to appoint an openly gay ambassador to the Holy See last year.
The Vatican stalled in accepting the nomination and eventually Hollande relented, appointing veteran diplomat Philippe Zeller, who accompanied the president to the papal visit.