Sister of murdered French priest tells story of forgiveness, friendship with killer’s mother

By Caroline de Sury

PARIS (OSV News) — Spending most of her life in Armentières, a northern small French town bordering Belgium, Roseline Hamel, 84, would never have expected it to take such a dramatic turn when her brother, Jacques, 86, was murdered while celebrating Mass at his little church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in France’s Normandy region on July 26, 2016.

She found consolation in something hard to achieve in grief — forgiveness and friendship with the assassin’s mother. Now they set out on a journey to write a book together.

Hamel was very close to her brother, who was 10 years older. She often came to visit and stayed with Father Hamel. The day before the attack, she had arrived at the clergy house with her family. She wanted to help him tidy up and pack his suitcase, before taking him on vacation.

She fondly remembers the last dinner they all had with her brother. “Just as we were about to start eating, much to our surprise, my brother put down his fork to speak to us. ‘I would like to tell you that I am infinitely happy to see you all here, around the table,’ he told us. We were amazed. He was not used to sharing his feelings like that. With hindsight, I made the connection between that dinner and Christ’s last supper with his disciples,” she told OSV News.

Hamel recounted the “bubble of pain” in which she locked herself for months after the attack. “I had to find a new path, and it did not happen overnight,” she told OSV News. “I was talking to God, arguing with God, calling God to account!”

A year later, she was finally convinced that God was at her side in her suffering. “I wondered who could suffer more than I did,” she said. “And then I thought of the murderers, and how much more I would suffer, if I were their mother.”

From then on, Hamel tried to meet Aldjia Kermiche, the mother of one of the two jihadist attackers, who lived in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. She made the first visit along with Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen. Before ringing the doorbell, the archbishop prayed a Hail Mary with her, to help her overcome emotion.

“Kermiche immediately asked for my forgiveness,” Hamel told OSV News. “I replied that I had come to suggest that we try to manage our pain together. She hugged me and we both cried.”

Adel Kermiche and Abdel-Malik Petitjean, the attackers, after slitting the throat of Father Hamel, also seriously injured one of the worshippers they took hostage and were shot dead by the police as they tried to leave the church.

Hamel recalled that upon the first meeting with Adel’s mother, “she told us about the painful years she had lived through with her son since he was a teenager, and her growing concern at seeing him change personality under the influence of jihadist networks,” she said. “We did not interrupt her. We deeply understood what she was saying.”

Hamel later continued to visit Kermiche regularly. “Her family looks a lot like mine,” the late priest’s sister told OSV News. “They are Muslims and we are Christians, but their values and way of life are very close to ours. Her husband is a truck driver, as was mine. We both had five children. She did voluntary work, as I did. When her children grew up, she returned to work as a biology teacher in a local school. It was a stable family, with no problems.”

Kermiche showed Hamel photos of her son, whom she described as “a sensitive boy, who wanted to do humanitarian work.” But at a certain point, the assassin’s mother told Hamel, he had come into online contact with people who claimed to be devout Muslims.

“They had perceived his sensitivity and vulnerability,” Hamel told OSV News. “He started telling his parents that their way of praying was not right, and that he wanted to go to Syria.”

Very worried, his mother went to the police several times to ask for help. Her son made two attempts to leave for Syria and was sentenced to prison for a year. There he rubbed shoulders with Islamists.

“When his mother realized it, she and her husband took steps to get him out of prison, but it was too late. He had been brainwashed,” Hamel recalled from a conversation with the Muslim woman.

“And (then) he killed a man, and a man of God. You can imagine his mother’s pain!” she told OSV News.

Today, Kermiche is still teaching, Hamel said. “She held on thanks to her colleagues,” she said. “They knew her well, and they had a high regard for her. She was afraid of being questioned by the students. But she held her head high, despite her suffering.”

During the 2022 trial against four alleged accomplices in the heinous assassination of Father Hamel, his sister publicly comforted Kermiche, to the point of moving the audience of the juridical process.

“I was not there to judge and condemn,” she explained. “I was there to listen to the young people who were linked in the attack, and try to understand how such tragedies can happen.”

Since then, Hamel and Kermiche’s friendship has gone from emotion to action. On Jan. 25, they were both at the Marian shrine of Lourdes for the ceremony of the Jacques Hamel Prize, awarded annually since 2018 to reward journalistic work on peace efforts and interreligious dialogue.

Pope Francis sent a message to the award ceremony, describing Father Hamel as “An elderly priest, kind, gentle, fraternal, and peaceful in the face of wild and blind violence unleashed supposedly in the name of God.”

The new goal for Hamel is to now finish the book with her unexpected friend. “The idea was born on All Saints’ Day in 2019,” Hamel told OSV News. “Kermiche came to pick me up to take me to pray at her son’s grave. Her daughter was with us in the car. She was amazed to see us so close. ‘You should write a book together,’ she told us. From that day on, the idea never left us,” Hamel said of a project she is now working on.

Hamel already wrote a book on her beloved brother titled, “Jacques, Mon Frère” (“Jacques, My Brother”), in which she recounted the life of the priest whose beatification process is underway in Rome. Soon after the priest’s murder, Pope Francis authorized the church in France to open the beatification process, the step before sainthood, saying he was a “martyr.”

In December 2023, Hamel met Pope Francis, sharing a few gifts with him, including a copy of a recently found homily her brother had written for the Easter season.

“Despite his age, my brother continued to write all his homilies by hand, on scrap paper,” she told French Catholic media outlet Aleteia after meeting the Holy Father, adding that a full trunk of writings was sent to Rome for her brother’s beatification proceedings.

Now, she is focused on a new goal with her Muslim friend. “We are both victims of terrorism, and we want to express our mutual friendship and compassion,” she told OSV News of her book project with Kermiche.

“In addition to the pain of losing her son, Kermiche is carrying a heavy burden of guilt,” Hamel concluded. “I try to help her as she tries to help me. I am thinking of entitling the book ‘my sister in pain.’”

Caroline de Sury writes for OSV News from Paris.

The post Sister of murdered French priest tells story of forgiveness, friendship with killer’s mother first appeared on OSV News.

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