PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron said on Saturday he respected Muslims who were shocked by cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad but that was no excuse for violence, as his officials ramped up security after a knife attack in a French church that killed three people this week.
An assailant shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest) beheaded a woman and killed two other people in a church in Nice on Thursday, in France’s second deadly knife attack in two weeks with a suspected Islamist motive.
The suspected assailant, a 21-year-old from Tunisia, was shot by police and is now in critical condition in a hospital.
Police said on Saturday that another person was taken into custody in connection with the attack. That person joins three others already in custody on suspicion of contacts with the attacker.
Macron has deployed thousands of soldiers to protect sites such as places of worship and schools, and ministers have warned that other Islamist militant attacks could take place.
The Nice attack, on the day Muslims celebrated the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday, came amid growing Muslim anger across the world over France’s defence of the right to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet.
On Oct. 16, Samuel Paty, a school teacher in a Paris suburb, was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen who was apparently incensed by the teacher showing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad in class during a civics lesson.
Protesters have denounced France in street rallies in several Muslim-majority countries, and some have called for boycotts of French goods.
France, on edge in anticipation of more possible attacks, was jolted on Saturday evening when a Greek Orthodox priest was shot and wounded in his church in the south-eastern city of Lyon. But officials gave no indication that terrorism was suspected.
In an effort to rectify what he said were misapprehensions about France’s intentions in the Muslim world, Macron gave an interview to Arabic television network Al Jazeera that was broadcast on Saturday.
In it, he said France would not back down in the face of violence and would defend the right to free expression, including the publication of cartoons.
But he stressed that did not mean he or his officials supported the cartoons, which Muslims consider blasphemous, or that France was in any way anti-Muslim.
“So I understand and respect that people could be shocked by these cartoons, but I will never accept that one can justify physical violence over these cartoons, and I will always defend the freedom in my country to write, to think, to draw,” Macron said, according to an interview transcript released by his office.
“My role is to calm things down, which is what I’m doing, but at the same time, it’s to protect these rights.”
France’s chief anti-terrorism prosecutor has said the man suspected of carrying out the Nice attack was a Tunisian born in 1999 who had arrived in Europe on Sept. 20 in Lampedusa, the Italian island off Tunisia.
Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Palermo, in Italy, are investigating the man’s subsequent passage through the island, including the people he might have been in touch with there, and are requisitioning phone records, judicial sources told Reuters.
Investigators are looking into the possibility that the suspect arrived in the Italian city of Bari in early October, on a ship used to quarantine migrants, before leaving for Palermo, the sources said.
Reporting by Sarah White and Michel Rose in Paris and Wladimiro Pantaleone in Sicily; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Ros Russel and Frances Kerry
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