By Stefan J. Bos
A makeshift memorial has been set up outside the Basilica where locals placed flowers and lit candles for the victims of the latest Islamic terror attack that has shocked this nation.
Their mourning comes just hours after the area here turned into a war zone. Shots reverberated in and outside the church as police confronted the attacker, footage showed.
Police shot and wounded the suspected knifeman, identified as 21-year-old Tunisian Ibrahim Issaoui, who had only recently arrived in Europe. Pedestrians ran away from the gunfire into a nearby store.
The suspected attacker was said to be in critical condition in the hospital. On Friday, authorities detained another suspect; a 47-year-old man believed to have been in contact with the attacker the night before the murders.
Murdered before Mass
The two women and a man who died were attacked inside the Basilica on Thursday morning before the first Mass of the day.
French authorities say that two died inside the church. One of them, a 60-year-old woman who has not been named, was reported "virtually beheaded" close to the font.
French media have named one victim as 55-year-old Vincent Loquès, a devout Catholic who had reportedly worked at the basilica for more than ten years.
Police say that Loquès, a father of two, loved by many of the church's regulars, opened the building when the attacker slit his throat.
The Brazilian foreign ministry identified the third victim as Simone Barreto Silva, a 44-year-old mother of three born in Salvador on Brazil's north-eastern coast. She had lived in France for 30 years.
She fled to a nearby cafe with multiple stab wounds but died shortly afterward. The woman reportedly told those who helped her: "Tell my children that I love them."
Macron vows never to "give in to terror"
After the attack, French President Emanuel Macron visited the scene to express his closeness to the Catholic population and expressed outrage about the attack. "Once again, our country has been hit by an Islamic terrorist attack," he said.
He also noted another attack Thursday at the French consulate in Jeddah, Sauguardabia, in which a quard was injured.
President Macron added: "If we have been attacked again, it is because of our values, our taste for freedom. The possibility is here to believe and not to give in to terror. Let me say this very clearly: "we will never give in."
On Friday morning, priest Philippe Asso was seen standing on the church steps here. He came with other mourners before walking in with a wreath to the victims. Others gathered outside the church to pay their respects.
Samuel Paty and Charlie Hebdo
The gruesome murders happened while France and other European nations were still mourning the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty on October 16 in a Paris suburb.
An Islamist killed Paty for showing cartoons of Prophet Muhammad to students.
Those caricatures were published by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and cited by the men who gunned down the publication's editorial meeting in 2015.
In September, a man who had sought asylum in France attacked bystanders outside Charlie Hebdo's former offices with a butcher's knife.
The Nice church's attack happened less than a kilometer from the site in 2016, where another attacker plowed a truck into a Bastille Day crowd, killing dozens.
It has underscored tensions over freedom of expression with the Islamic community, though moderate Muslim leaders have condemned the attacks.
French churches targeted
French churches have been targets of terrorist attacks in the past. In 2016, two men murdered an 85-year-old priest in a church in Normandy.
A few months later, a group of women was caught attempting to light cooking-gas canisters on fire outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
In both cases, the attackers were reportedly in touch with the Islamic State group, which has been linked to widespread terror.
Following Thursday's attack, President Macron pledged to increase soldiers' numbers to protect French schools and religious sites from around 3,000 to 7,000.
Authorities say schools remain open during a nationwide lockdown that started Friday to stem the coronavirus's spread, but religious services are canceled.