Algeciras, Spain—The city of Algeciras was united in mourning Thursday, a day after a machete-wielding man stormed two churches, killing a verger and seriously wounding a priest in the multicultural southern Spanish port.
The attacks took place on Wednesday evening as worshippers met to celebrate the Eucharist at two churches near each other in the city. Police arrested the alleged assailant, a 25-year-old Moroccan, at the scene.
As investigators pressed ahead with a terrorism probe, police carried out an early-morning raid on his home.
The interior ministry said he had been served with a deportation order in June but had no prior convictions and had not been under surveillance.
In 2019, he had been deported from Gibraltar on grounds of illegal entry, a government statement from the tiny British enclave said.
He was deported on August 8 along with three other immigrants, it said.
At midday, several hundred mourners gathered in stunned silence outside Nuestra Senora de La Palma church where the verger Diego Valencia was killed, many of them in tears.
Flowers were laid and candles lit in the square, and a minute’s silence was observed while the church bells rang.
“We have lived here for years and we have always been very welcomed,” said Nawal Montaguikie, a Moroccan woman in her 40s who remembered Valencia as “a gentle person”.
“What did he do to deserve this?” she said, her voice trembling with emotion.
“We condemn this man and what he’s done. I hope he rots in jail.”
Also present was Juan Jose Marina, La Palma’s parish priest, who had been conducting a service elsewhere when the attack that claimed his verger’s life occurred. afP
“If I am alive, it’s because Diego died instead of me. I was supposed to be there,” he said, his eyes swollen from weeping.
Many in the crowd were visibly moved, among them family members, police officers, town council employees and several veiled women who could not hold back their tears.
Local media said the suspect lived near the churches, which are just 300 metres apart in the town of around 120,000 residents.
A well-known figure
Although Spain’s top criminal court has opened a terrorism investigation, Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said it was not yet possible to say whether the incident was of a “terrorist nature”.
The suspect was not listed in Spain — or in neighbouring countries — as a radical, but authorities were ruling nothing out, Grande-Marlaska said while on a visit to the city. No one else had been involved in the attack, he said.
The suspect, seen in police footage with a beard and wearing a black, white and grey hoodie, entered the church of San Isidro armed with a machete just after 7:00 pm (1800 GMT).
He “attacked the priest, leaving him seriously wounded”, the interior ministry said.
“Subsequently, he entered the church of Nuestra Senora de La Palma in which, after causing damage, he attacked the verger (who) managed to get out of the church, but was caught by the attacker outside and sustained mortal injuries.”
Witnesses told local media the attacker was shouting and started hurling icons, crosses and candles to the floor.
The priest, 74-year-old Antonio Rodriguez, sustained injuries to the neck while celebrating the Eucharist at San Isidro church, his parish said, describing his condition as “serious but stable”.
Outside the church, mourners laid flowers and lit candles in memory of a man who was a well-known figure within the local Catholic community.
“In Algeciras, we’ve always boasted about the fact that we have people from 129 different nationalities living together in peace and harmony and we’ve never had any incident or tension,” Mayor Jose Ignacio Landaluce told TeleMadrid TV.
“What has happened now is more than we can take in, it grieves us and worries us because when a fuse like this is lit, it has to be put out quickly to prevent it from causing damage that nobody wants.”
Speaking at the rally, local Muslim community spokesman Dris Mohamed Amar said they were there to “publicly show our pain in the face of this harrowing atrocity”.
“We robustly condemn this murderous act against a man of peace, an unarmed man, a noble man,” he said.
“We hope this act does not bring into question the harmony that exists between different communities in Algeciras.”
Cesar Garcia Magan, who heads the Episcopal Conference grouping of Spain’s leading bishops, described the attack as “reprehensible, unjustifiable and abhorrent”, and warned against “the danger of demonising certain groups”.