Two men acting on behalf of ISIS attacked a small church in Normandy, France on Tuesday morning, killing Father Jacques Hamel, the parish’s eighty-six-year-old priest, and critically injuring another. The terrorists were then shot by police as they attempted to exit the church while a third individual, thought to have been associated with the jihadists, was taken into custody. The attack took place during Tuesday morning mass while Father Hamel was officiating the service.
One of the witnesses, Sister Daniele Delafosse, told reporters that the two men went to the altar where Father Hamel was speaking, spoke an apparently religious oration in Arabic, and then forced the priest to his knees before slitting his throat. French President, Francois Hollande, described the attack as a “cowardly assassination” perpetrated “by two terrorists in the name of Daesh,” another term for ISIS.
The assault is the latest in a growing trend, exemplified most recently by the truck that killed eighty-four in Nice less than two weeks ago. And while it’s the first such attack to take place inside a church, the French government has worried for some time that Christian places of worship would become targets.
In April of 2015, authorities arrested a twenty-four-year-old computer science student from Algeria named Sid Ahmed Ghlam, who was thought to be targeting churches. Ghlam had been ordered by a Belgian militant to attack a church in Villejuif but was thankfully arrested before he was able to do so.
Given that ISIS has long promised to “conquer your Rome” and “break your crosses,” perhaps it should not come as a surprise if Catholic churches throughout the region become preferred targets. But whether the terrorists begin to specifically attack such houses of worship or continue to simply inflict chaos and death wherever the opportunity presents itself, President Hollande is partially right in saying that the strength of those opposing them “lies in their unity” and that ISIS will not stop until they are forced to do so.
I say he is partially right because, while there is strength in unity and the terrorists aren’t likely to cease their attacks when they still have the capacity to inflict death and destruction, the war against ISIS is ultimately ideological just as much as it is physical. That’s why a group in the Middle East can inspire attacks in Europe, America, and across the globe without being physically present to perpetrate them. While killing or otherwise stopping those in the group will help in that struggle, so long as the ideas have appeal, the violence is likely to continue.
That’s not necessarily bad news though. I have often found myself loathing the thought of writing about ISIS’s latest atrocity (and, in all honesty, was not excited about the prospect of writing this article either), as it seems like each day’s headlines simply bring more of the same. However, because this war is largely ideological, it is not limited to a specific region or battlefield. That means, unlike most armed conflicts, these are not battles that require the majority to watch as a select group does the fighting.
If you’re getting tired of hearing about the death and destruction these terrorists have inflicted, you can actually do something about it. That’s a relatively rare opportunity to make an actual difference in the situation. So how can we go about it?
First, it’s important to realize that those perpetrating these attacks do not represent the majority of Muslims on our planet. If you doubt that fact, understand that these terrorists have killed more Muslims than any other group. Demonizing all those who practice Islam can only help their cause and, consequently, those who do are part of the problem rather than the solution (for more on this distinction, see Jim Denison’s “Is Islam a Religion of Violence or Peace“).
Second, rather than letting such stories discourage us, use them as a constant reminder of the need to pray. God can redeem atrocities like these attacks in ways we may never fully understand this side of heaven, and often he will have a role for you to play in that redemption. Whether that comes from using these attacks as an opportunity to share God’s hope with those who find theirs in short supply, to speak with Muslims who are just as scared and angry (if not more so) than we are, or in any number of other ways, we can’t effectively play our part without his guidance and strength.
Satan hates nothing more than when we redeem his work for God’s purposes. The battle against ISIS offers us just such an opportunity. What will you do with it?